Bob Wojnowski and Matt Charboneau break down MSU's win over Bradley in the NCAA Tournament. The Detroit News
Des Moines, Iowa —The Spartans looked like they were wearing down, and for a moment, like they were melting down. Sometimes, perceptions can be deceiving.
Oh, they were worn to the nub during their NCAA Tournament opener Thursday, a grinding 76-65 victory over Bradley. And if they were going to crack, this was it. Bradley wasn’t going away, leading deep into the second half, and the crowd was sniffing an upset.
Then came the classic Spartans combo — fire and ice. Tom Izzo brought the fire and Cassius Winston iced it away. And Michigan State advanced to a second-round matchup against Big Ten compatriot Minnesota because this is a team that can handle discomfort, no matter how uneasy it looks.
It was Izzo in full coaching character, nothing overly unusual. The Spartans actually were on a 10-0 run early in the second half, when during a timeout, Izzo verbally admonished freshman Aaron Henry, punctuated with angry finger jabs. As the players sat in the huddle, Izzo grew even more agitated, his face reddening, and he jumped from his seat before Winston stepped between the two to settle everything down.
This was not the full story of the game, as the Spartans methodically took over with a strong second half and pulled away. But in many ways it’s the story of this team, with Winston in the middle of all the important moments, in all the important ways.
Henry had jogged back up on the court on defense, the type of effort-related lapse that triggers Izzo like no other transgression. Like most outbursts, it looked worse than it was. Like most guys who play for him, the message was received without harm done. If the Spartans are to make a run, they need Henry to grow up quicker, with Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens sidelined.
And of course, they needed Winston to continue playing beyond his physical means, beyond his age, beyond most reasonable bounds. He was perfectly steady against Bradley, pounded and hounded but never stopped. By the end, he was the one hitting a short floater and nailing free throws — Michigan State made a staggering 25 of 26 —and finishing with 26 points.
His calm at the end was preceded by his cool in a feisty huddle, when Winston again showed his understated leadership.
MSU's Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston talk about the win over Bradley in the NCAA Tournament. The Detroit News
“I understand where (Izzo) is coming from, and I felt in that moment, I could get the message to (Henry) better,” Winston said. “So I stepped in and said, ‘What do you need me to say, and I’ll handle it.’ (Henry) is going through a lot, no telling what’s going through his head. At that moment, I felt I could get the message better.”
So Winston leaned into Henry’s face and told him Izzo was right, that the freshman had blown an assignment, that now was not the time to let up. After the game, Henry concurred, and expressed no problem with Izzo’s approach.
Leaning against a wall outside the locker room, Izzo got slightly exasperated by questions about his tough-love method. In my mind, there really isn’t a question, as long as nothing gets physical. This incident received more coverage because it came in the Tournament, but if it changes anyone’s perception of Izzo, well, they haven’t been paying attention.
“What is wrong with challenging a kid who made some mistakes?” Izzo said. “Aaron Henry, trust me, did some things you can’t do as a starter on a top-five team, and they were effort-related. So he’s going to get challenged and held accountable. That is my job. I don’t know why everybody gets so bent out of shape about that.”
I don’t know if everybody was bent out of shape, or just jarred by the scene. And again, as long as lines aren’t crossed, it doesn’t really matter. Izzo’s approach doesn’t always work with all players, but whatever he’s done with this undermanned team, it’s working.
Henry had a rough game, committed five turnovers and even missed a dunk with the Spartans barley hanging on, 56-55, with 5:26 left. But he bounced back moments later with a short jumper that nudged the lead to 58-55. It was a struggle for a few players, including Kenny Goins, who was 1-for-10 (0-for-7 on 3-pointers). Michigan State needs Goins to regain his shooting touch, needs Matt McQuaid to continue his clutch play, and needs Nick Ward to work himself back into playing shape.
The Spartans also need one talented freshman not to play like a freshman.
“I was playing so bad, on offense and defense, all areas of the game,” Henry said. “I’ll shake it off and be ready for Saturday. It’s OK. He’s gonna yell, it’s what he does, and you gotta accept it. Listen to what he says and apply it to the game. You can’t listen to how he says it, but what he says.”
The approach works when leaders convince their teammates it works, and that’s where Winston is doing some of his finest work. Whether counseling young players or finding cracks in a tough Bradley defense, Winston does what it takes. This was the Spartans’ fourth game in seven days after winning the Big Ten tournament, and it showed.
Bradley was legitimately fearless, led by point guard Darrell Brown, who the day before had declared his team every bit as good as Michigan State. For much of the game, he backed it up. And then Winston backed him down, slipping loose while the Spartans took over on the boards, outrebounding the Braves 23-7 in the second half.
“I thought Cassius Winston did the best job of leading, from the moment we walked in this building, that he’s done in his career,” Izzo said. “I’m so damn proud of that kid, because he did say stuff in the huddle, on the court, and when he didn’t do his job, I’m also picking on him. … I told him, I know I’ve ridden you like Seattle Slew, but I’m gonna ride you some more.”
In a program built on toughness and raw honesty, sweat equity is a non-negotiable trait, and fatigue is not an alibi. Now the Spartans seemingly get a break, facing Minnesota, which upset Louisville. Michigan State blasted the Gophers 79-55 in their only meeting in East Lansing.
The Spartans could use a break, after getting slotted as a No. 2 seed in the rugged East Region with Duke. But they can’t expect a break from their coach, driving as hard as ever to erase disappointments the past three Tournaments.
“My job is to grind it, and I’m gonna keep grinding it,” Izzo said. “That was a helluva effort by a team that really had zero rest because of that turnaround, and if somebody doesn’t like that as an excuse, too bad.”
No excuses accepted this time of year. In the Spartans’ opener, everyone was vividly reminded of that.
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 10 MINNESOTA
Tip-off: 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan State 29-6, Minnesota 22-13
Next up: Winner faces No. 3 LSU or No. 6 Maryland in the Sweet 16