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Niyo: As Aaron Henry's confidence grows, so can Michigan State's title chances

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State freshman forward Aaron Henry (11) did a little bit of everything Tuesday night against Nebraska, scoring a career-high 15 points to go with five rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes.

East Lansing — There were a lot of different looks for Michigan State on Tuesday night. New looks. Strange looks, frankly. Lineups that Tom Izzo doesn’t even throw together in practice were out there on the court in a critical game in March with a Big Ten championship still on the line.

Yet amid the odd chaos, and midway through the first half, there was another look that caught Matt McQuaid’s eye.

It came on another of what has become the Spartans’ offensive staple in these lean times, with Izzo missing three regulars from his rotation and leaning heavily on a suddenly-hobbling star.

Cassius Winston, tendinitis flaring up in his right knee Tuesday, dribbled to his left off one high ball screen, then back the other way to come off another. Michigan State’s do-it-all point guard ignored Xavier Tillman as he slipped toward the basket and instead fired a skip pass to the left corner, where freshman Aaron Henry was standing alone in front of the Nebraska bench.

Henry caught the ball, set his feet, and then calmly launched a three-point attempt that splashed through the net to continue a 19-2 run for Michigan State. And as he turned to run back down the court, McQuaid saw something that’d been missing.

“Even saw him smile a little,” he said, smiling himself when asked about Henry in the postgame locker room. “He was playing great, and I was proud of him.”

Starting strong

And while Tuesday served as the unofficial tipoff for Senior Week, with McQuaid (22 points) and Kenny Goins (24 points) both posting career-best scoring nights ahead of Saturday’s rematch with Michigan in the Big Ten regular-season finale, we all caught a glimpse of something else in the win over Nebraska.

Henry’s productive night — a career-high 15 points to go with five rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in 22 minutes — was both a relief and a reminder.

Winston’s going to give Izzo everything he’s got, and the seniors seem primed to do the same with one-and-done time looming. But if Michigan State’s going to make the kind of postseason run it hasn’t the past couple of years, the Spartans are going to need someone else to break through and crack a few smiles. And Henry, the athletic, 6-foot-6 wing who has started 13 of the last 14 games in place of Joshua Langford (foot surgery), just might be the answer if he can play with the sort of confidence he displayed Tuesday.

 “I think (he) was less tentative,” Izzo said after his team’s 91-76 victory. “But he's gotta understand what his range is and what he can do, play within himself. And that’s what I thought he did a good job of tonight.”

Henry was just 5-for-18 over a four-game stretch coming into this game, and for a player accustomed to scoring — Henry was a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award a year ago — the frustration was mounting. He’d reached double figures just once all season – a 12-point night against Maryland on Jan. 21.

So it certainly helped that Henry’s night started on a positive note Tuesday. After setting another high-ball screen for Winston, the Spartans’ leader took advantage of Nebraska’s defensive switch and fed Henry on the left block posting up 6-foot guard Glynn Watson Jr. The freshman responded with quick move to his right for a lefty jump hook.

“And seeing the ball going through the bucket for the first time, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m here. All I gotta do is just keep doing that,’” Henry said. “Just getting into the flow of the game, and getting my offense going in that way, is huge for me. And when I hit that bucket it was like, ‘Let’s keep building on that.’”

If he can, it’ll do wonders for Michigan State’s postseason chances.

'Comfortable on the court'

Izzo was happy with what he saw from his offense Tuesday, for the most part. The Spartans shook off a flurry of first-half turnovers and finished scoring 1.4 points per possession. But Izzo knows his team can’t count on shooting 50 percent from three (12-for-24) or getting 20-plus points a night from Goins. Or having the luxury of facing a down-and-out Nebraska team again, for that matter.

“We're not gonna win games that way,” he said. “You're gonna be able to win big games by being able to guard and rebound a little.”

By getting easy buckets in transition, too. Not coincidentally, those are all things Henry can do at this stage of his young career. He's a slasher, not a shooter right now. (Henry's 8-for-25 from three-point range this season.) He's also a threat on the offensive glass when he wants to be. And that’s what Izzo and his staff have tried to impress upon him the last few weeks, as the pressure to perform in the wake of Langford’s injury began to paralyze the freshman. 

“I’ve realized that Coach needs more out of me, with the injuries and stuff like that,” Henry said. “So I’ve gotta step up and take more shots and be more comfortable on the court. And I feel like the way I can do that is by getting started on defense and getting the rebounds. And then maybe starting close and working my way out (offensively) in the game. Once I feel like I’m on, it goes good from there.”

Tuesday, that certainly was the case. Even after foul trouble sent him to the bench — he picked up his second shortly after his three-pointer and sat the final 9:32 of the half — Henry responded.

He was fouled on a layup attempt and made both free throws on Michigan State’s first possession after halftime. On the next, he quickly beat Nebraska’s Amir Harris on the left wing and drove the lane for a short jumper, prompting TV analyst Dan Dakich to say on the ESPN broadcast, “That kid’s gonna be a star someday.”

Later, as the Spartans were fending off a second-half charge from the Cornhuskers, Henry found a seam and threw down an emphatic right-handed dunk.

“You know, it’s hard to stop him 1-on-1 getting downhill,” Winston said, nodding. “And guys were shooting the ball so well, they had to close out (on shooters) and he just had to pick his gaps. He did a good job of just doing what he does well.”

If and when he does that, well, more good things can happen.

With just under 2 minutes left, Henry found himself as the most experienced Michigan State player on the court. Izzo threw out all five of his freshmen at once — the Spartans were only up 11 at the time — and Henry took control, crossing over a defender and pulling up for a free-throw jumper that he drilled.

“It was one of those shots where I was wide open, so I just rose up and took it,” he shrugged. “Not thinking, just shot the ball. Which is what I need to get back to doing.

“It felt good and put my head back in a good space. I feel like I’m more confident in what I do. … And that’s what our team needs from me right now.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo