East Lansing — If Saturday’s victory at Ohio State is any indication, Aaron Henry’s role will continue to grow as the season progresses.
It’s been hit and miss through the first couple of months for the Michigan State freshman. As the only member of a five-player freshman class to be consistently in the rotation, Henry has had some big moments in wins over Texas and Iowa early in the season but has also shown the typical inconsistencies of a first-year player.
But with junior Joshua Langford out because of an ankle injury, the need for Henry to be a player the Spartans can trust has jumped significantly.
Consider the win at Ohio State as Henry passing one of his first big tests.
“He’s gonna be important but under fire,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s gonna have to be important. He’s an athlete enough, he’s strong enough, he’s smart enough.”
He was all those things in the victory over the Buckeyes, despite playing just a minute in the first half as he picked up two quick fouls, which led to some meaningful playing time for fellow freshman Gabe Brown.
Henry’s first big moment came early in the second half when he took a pass in the corner from Xavier Tillman and buried a 3-pointer from the corner to cap a 9-0 run and give Michigan State a 51-50 lead as the Spartans wiped out a nine-point deficit on the road. The shot was the key momentum swinger in the game and microphones caught a Michigan State player using some colorful language as the ball ripped through the net.
On Monday, Tillman let everyone know it was him. He was under the basket and had the best angle.
“That was me, for sure,” Tillman said, cracking a quick smile.
The 3-pointer wasn’t all for Henry. In fact, he was just getting started.
With the game on the line in the final minutes, Henry had his share of big plays. First, he had a nice dish to Kenny Goins for a layup that gave the Spartans a 75-72 lead with 3:47 to play. He followed that with a steal from Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson on Ohio State’s next possession then buried two free throws with 1:07 left in the game to give Michigan State a 79-72 lead.
“This was huge for me,” Henry said. “I wanted to show him what I can do and I’m happy he put his trust in me and obviously I put my trust in him coming here. I’m glad I got to play.”
Henry even got to play when Izzo didn’t realize it.
The Spartans have started to try and use point guard Cassius Winston off the ball more and take advantage of his shooting ability. At one point, that left Henry bringing the ball up the court, something Izzo admitted wasn’t the plan but could be something Henry excels at down the road.
“We wanted to run a couple of sets, and I thought I had (Matt) McQuaid in there and I had Aaron in there,” Izzo said. “So there, how’s that for a transparent answer? But in saying that, Aaron is a very good decision-maker. He really does do some good things. He’s gotta get better with the ball. But as far as decision-making, that’s what’s gonna really separate this kid from some of our other wings in the past. He makes decisions. He can make good passes. … I can see that happening down the road more, we just gotta be sure we work on it a little more.”
With more work, the trust between Izzo and Henry will continue to grow. With Langford out for Tuesday night’s matchup with Purdue and likely when Michigan State travels to Penn State on Sunday, Henry will be needed once again.
“He’s gonna be thrown right into the fire now,” Izzo said. “As I tried to explain to my team, there is still a difference between conference play and regular-season. And those freshmen, I told them, ‘Hang on to your hat.’ That little dose of it we got in December is nothing. It’s now a constant grind, day to day.
“You’re gonna have to be on top of your game, and I think that’s what we’re trying to talk to both him and Gabe a little bit more as far as those wing guys to try and pick up a little bit of that slack. But I feel good about him. He’s gonna be a hell of a player. Now, he’s got the opportunity.”