East Lansing — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was in his element on Tuesday afternoon, putting his team through an intense practice and barking at his team from start to finish.
As Izzo said after Sunday’s win over Green Bay, this is his favorite time of year when he can push his guys hard without the constraints that exist the rest of the season. With students on break, teams can go as long as they want.
By the end of Tuesday’s practice, the sweat was dripping, a few players were looking frustrated and the team gathered near the center of the practice court. It was a typical quiet discussion between coach and players until the end. Suddenly, a huge outburst of laughter came from the group.
Matt McQuaid, a senior guard who has been through his share of tough practices with the Spartans, decided to have some fun with his coach in an effort to end things on a light note.
“Coach always says, ‘If you want to challenge me you can but you better bring the goods,’” McQuaid said.
Earlier in the practice, McQuaid had done just that — challenged Izzo.
It came after McQuaid drew the wrath of his coach during a scrimmage when freshman Gabe Brown hit a 3-pointer over McQuaid. Izzo didn’t think McQuaid closed out and got his hand up. McQuaid thought he did.
“Gabe hit a 3 and I thought I did a pretty good job with my hand up,” McQuaid explained. “Coach was getting on me. I was like, ‘Coach, I really think I had a hand up.’ He was like, ‘You wanna go watch the film?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go watch the film.’ So we go watch it and I didn’t have it up right away, but it was up, so I mean, it wasn’t good enough, but for me I feel like it was a win just taking it to the film.”
So, they went to the video monitor to see if McQuaid had the goods.
Practice stopped and the team crowded around.
“We went over to the film, he challenged me,” Izzo said, “and I guess he was a little more right than I was. I’d say it was 70-30.”
“I felt like I brought enough goods,” McQuaid said.
Indeed, he did have the goods. But it didn’t end there.
As the team gathered around Izzo at the end of practice, McQuaid decided to end things on a high note.
“In the huddle he had a red flag like in football,” Izzo said. “And he said, ‘Remember, if you challenge Coach you better bring the goods,’ and he threw the flag. So that was pretty good.”
It was the perfect ending to two intense days. No. 10 Michigan State practiced twice on Monday and followed Tuesday’s workout with film on Oakland, Friday’s opponent.
“A little humor to end it,” McQuaid said. “It was just all fun. We had a really good practice, we competed hard and I thought I’d end it with a little senior/coach moment with the red flag action.”
It’s the sort of practice Izzo has been looking forward to, something that was virtually impossible as Michigan State had a stretch of six games in a little more than two weeks, all against major conference teams and five of them on the road. Followed by finals last week, this has been the first time for the Spartans to work hard on themselves.
And work they did, with Izzo pushing them as hard as most would expect. In other words, no punches were pulled. But that’s exactly what the Spartans expect from their coach.
“Him screaming is him holding us accountable,” McQuaid said. “And I feel like a lot of people don’t get that. He wants us to be great and we get that, and we listen to him. We love Coach. He’s always helping us out, he wants us to be great and everybody sees that in him. He so passionate about it that everybody loves playing for him.
“But moments like these we can have fun with him, too. He’s human, too. He likes to have fun.”
The schedule remains light through next week. After Friday’s game at home against Oakland, the players get a few days off for Christmas before Michigan State (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) takes on Northern Illinois on Dec. 29.
That leaves plenty of time to practice before Big Ten play resumes after the first of the year. However, don’t expect it to be like this week.
“I gotta be smart enough to push them, but not beat them up,” Izzo said, “because we need fresh legs throughout the season.”
And if he does, maybe someone will throw the challenge flag — if they have the goods.