Michigan State's Aaron Henry, Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward talk about facing Texas Tech in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — It might not ever end up on a T-shirt, but what Kenny Goins had to say back in early February might be the slogan that sparked Michigan State’s season.
The Spartans had just lost two nights earlier at Illinois, turning the ball over 24 times and dropping their third straight. At that moment, a Final Four run seemed preposterous, let alone staying in the hunt for the Big Ten championship.
“You either (put) up or shut up,” Goins said.
It was Feb. 7.
Michigan State had lost back-to-back games to Indiana and Illinois, two teams residing near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. To say it was a turning point is obvious now as Michigan State gets set to take on Texas Tech at 8:49 p.m. Saturday in the second of two national semifinals.
At the time, however, it was simply a fifth-year senior doing everything he could to keep his final season from spiraling out of control. But it wasn’t just Goins’ words that day. They came after a late-night meeting when Michigan State returned from Illinois.
There they sat in the locker room, no coaches, players only. And they let it all out. From on-court frustrations to the difficulties of every-day life. They all talked, from fifth-year senior to freshman, from superstar to walk-on.
“It was a meeting that took forever but it was good,” freshman Aaron Henry said. “Everybody got something off their chest. We all helped each other. We didn’t hide anything from each other. It’s not about being vulnerable but just seeking help from each other and being here for each other.”
Whatever happened that night worked. Michigan State has lost once since then — inexplicably to Indiana for the second time — and now stands one game away from getting back to the national championship game for the first time since 2009.
It all turned that night, though. If anything was dividing the team, it was all washed away. The common goal became the only thing that mattered.
“That's when really the connection started,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “We told each other how much we loved each other, how much we wanted to be there for each other, how we've got each other's back and things like that. We told each other the things we don't like about each other. The things we do love about each other, all those type of things. So everything was out there on the table.
“And after that, like Kenny said, after that it's actions. We've been doing it since then.”
Winston doesn’t remember the specific words Goins used that night, but they were in the same neighborhood as the ones he used two days later as reporters crowded around.
“I don't know if he said that to us,” Winston explained. “That's basically what he said you know what I'm saying? You can only say so much. At some point it's just talk. And now it's time to do something about it.”
Doing something about it has been all Michigan State has focused on since.
The Spartans rolled over Minnesota later that week then went on the road to beat Wisconsin, which was ranked No. 20 in the nation at the time. Blowouts over Ohio State and Rutgers followed before the Spartans headed to Ann Arbor and beat Michigan for the first time in a top-10 showdown.
Everything was starting to click.
The loss at Indiana came next, but the Spartans responded differently this time. A trouncing of Nebraska was next before the regular-season finale at home against Michigan. Even down double-digits, the Spartans failed to crumble.
They had each other’s back.
Michigan State rallied to earn a share of the Big Ten championship. That led to the conference tournament title game, another showdown with the Wolverines.
The bond the players had created was clear again as Kyle Ahrens lay in a heap on the floor, his left ankle having rolled over leaving the junior screaming in pain. Tom Izzo was in tears. So was Nick Ward. He had a long embrace with Matt McQuaid, his best friend, and Joshua Langford.
The Spartans responded, once again, McQuaid scoring a career-high 27 and pointing to Ahrens after made 3-pointers. Michigan State cut the nets down that afternoon in Chicago and did so again last week in Washington after beating Duke.
On Thursday, Ahrens was thinking back to that night when they got back from Illinois. It was the moment, he said, that “freshman were technically sophomores because they were in the program so long.
“We really grew from that.”
It’s what the Spartans believe separates them this weekend. There’s little doubt Texas Tech is a close-knit group. The same with Virginia and Auburn.
But this Michigan State team feels different.
“It’s more than a team here,” Henry said. “It’s a fraternity. We’re brothers forever. We’re gonna talk about our problems we’re having on the court, why we’re losing games, why we’re not meeting our standards, why we just lost three in a row. It’s stuff that will make us better.
“There was some heart-to-hearts that needed to happen, just from a confidence standpoint and what coach wants from you, understanding what the goal was, understanding what we wanted to do as a team, what memories we wanted to make. At the end of the day, that meeting did us some good.”
It’s led Michigan State to this moment. The Spartans have won nine in a row, and in plenty of those games, there have been turning points. They’ve responded every time, whether it was the injury to Ahrens or being down in the final two minutes to Duke.
“We’ve created a culture, I think, that those former guys help the current guys know what a family is really about, what a brotherhood is really about,” Izzo said. “Then injuries and things that happen throughout a season, either make you or break you. They either bring you closer together, or you succumb to them and dissolve.
“I think they do believe in each other, they trust each other, they want to win for each other. It's not, ‘I want to win to get to the NBA.’ It's not, ‘I want to win for this or that or personal reasons. I don't need to score as many points.’ They are honestly happy no matter who's the star. You can't say that about all teams.”