Niyo: Izzo's Spartans are loaded for another NCAA title run

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Tom Izzo had questions. And as he stood in the hallway outside a quiet, somber Michigan State locker room late Saturday night, he promised there would be more.

Tom Izzo lamented the fact his team was outmuscled by a more physical opponent Saturday night.

The Spartans had come up short again in a Final Four, and while this is the sort of shortcoming only a Hall of Fame coach could understand, it was something Izzo knew his team needed to hear as well amid the appreciative thanks and the heartfelt apologies that always follow a season-ending loss in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m a huggy-feely type of guy, but I also wanted to know what happened? (So I asked) ‘What do you think happened?’ ” Izzo said after Michigan State’s 61-51 loss to Texas Tech in Saturday’s national semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I’m gonna come back here someday, and hopefully it won’t take another four years. But I’m gonna get back here. And that’s one of the things I asked my team in the locker room. ‘Was it the prep bad? Were you tired? Was the scouting report bad? … Maybe it was the crowd. Maybe it was the excitement. Maybe it was the defense.”

And maybe — or probably, Izzo admitted — it was a combination of all those things as the Spartans met the same fate as Gonzaga and Michigan had a week earlier in this NCAA Tournament. Texas Tech’s top-rated defense — a stifling scheme that’s impossible to simulate in practice — was too much even for his Michigan State team, a group that hadn’t lost in more than a month and was fresh off a thrilling Elite Eight win over Duke.

Izzo lamented the fact his team was outmuscled by a more physical opponent Saturday night. (“They were the tougher team tonight — they just were,” he shrugged.) But this wasn’t the defiant Izzo of a few years ago, standing in a hallway in Tulsa after a second-round NCAA loss to Kansas with a freshman-dominated roster, promising “paybacks” and vowing, “We’re not gonna get outrebounded again in my life.”

No, this was a coach who knew he’d gotten just about everything he could from the roster that finished the season. A rotation that was missing its second-best player in Joshua Langford and one that surely could’ve used the grit and shooting of Kyle Ahrens, who suited up and went through warm-ups Saturday — “I think he knew how much we needed him,” Izzo said — but never was going to play on that badly-sprained ankle he rolled in the Big Ten tournament final three weeks ago.

“We were down on the perimeter, we really were,” Izzo said. “And tonight somebody took advantage of that.”

Growing expectations

But that’s where the sadness turned Saturday night. That’s a big part of the reason the postgame locker room didn’t feel like it did a year ago after that stunning loss to Syracuse. No, this one felt more like the one four years ago in Indianapolis, the last time Michigan State reached a Final Four.

There were tears, sure. Just as there were then, when "Tum Tum" Nairn and Matt Costello broke down talking about sending the seniors — Travis Trice and Branden Dawson — out the wrong way. And there was a junior point guard — Cassius Winston now, Denzel Valentine then — reminding teammates about unfinished business.

But there’s also a coach who understands that a loaded roster returning — four starters who’ll be viewed as possible NBA draft picks in 2020 — only guarantees higher expectations. It won’t guarantee results. It didn't in 2016, remember?

“It’s hard for kids, especially when you’re 18 or 19 and you’ve got three years left,” Izzo said. “You always think there’s a tomorrow. …

“I wish I could be a coach that could explain to my players that, ‘Don’t ever think about next year, because it may never come.’ ”

The good news, however, is that his All-American point guard, Winston, seems to understand that. (“He said, ‘You know coach? You’re right,’” Izzo smiled.) And so do some of the younger players who’ll be counted on to take on much larger roles next season with the departures of seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, and probably junior Nick Ward as well.

The full 40

Michigan State wouldn’t have gotten to this point without the development of sophomore Xavier Tillman or freshman Aaron Henry this winter.

Tillman averaged 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds over the final 13 games of the season, winning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors even as he emerged defensively as a game-changing interior presence in the starting lineup.

But while he continues to develop his perimeter skills to become more of a pick-and-pop option this summer, he’ll also need to work on polishing his finishing skills around the basket. He’ll need to work on his strength and conditioning to finish games, too, a point Saturday’s loss drove home for Tillman, who admittedly was tired with his leg muscles cramping while playing 35 minutes against Texas Tech.

“But that’s another motivation for next year,” he said, “to get to where I’ll be able to play Kenny-type minutes and be productive for those 40 minutes.”

Henry looked lost for much of his freshman season, and he struggled to find his confidence after being asked to step into the starting lineup in mid-January. But his play down the stretch — averaging nearly 10 points and six rebounds while making huge strides defensively — helped spark the Spartans’ late-season run. He nearly did the same Saturday night after getting in early foul trouble against Texas Tech.

“Aaron Henry, man, he made some big-time plays late in that game, and he really locked in defensively,” Izzo said. “What I really like about Aaron every day is when you challenge him, he responds. And that’s a great quality to have.”

It’s one that another talented freshman, Gabe Brown, will need to show if Michigan State’s going to become the team that Izzo imagined this one might before the injuries set in.

“Poor Gabe had the deer-in-the-headlights (look),” Izzo said after Henry’s foul trouble forced him into 14 minutes of action. “I mean, the kid, he works hard, but he’s just not experienced enough right now.”

That won’t be an excuse a year from now, which is what the players were talking about as they sorted through the emotions Saturday. Izzo spoke up, and so did Winston. 

“Mostly talking to the freshman and I about this feeling that we have of defeat,” Tillman said. "And telling us to keep this feeling through the spring and summer workouts, so that we come into next year at a different level.”

Michigan’s players were saying much the same thing a week ago after their season ended at the hands of this same Texas Tech team. And depending on early pro departures, both teams should be viewed as Big Ten favorites with preseason top-10 national rankings in the fall.

Winston’s ball-screen prowess all but guarantees the Spartans will have an efficient offense once again. In December Izzo was thinking this also might be his best transition team since the 2000 national title squad led by Mateen Cleaves. Next year, with Langford back and Henry off and running, it should be.

Still, there are no guarantees when it comes to that kind of promise.

“Put it this way: We’ve got a lot of guys that gotta get better,” Izzo said. “And they gotta get better in a lot of areas.”

That includes Izzo and his staff, of course, as they try to figure out ways to better integrate the talent and spread out the minutes. Winston needs backcourt help, whether it's Foster Loyer or top recruit Rocket Watts. Tillman's going to need a tag-team partner inside. But all of that is why the Spartans' season ended with answers laced with questions from the head coach.

“I’m gonna make sure I really analyze this,” Izzo said. “Because there’ll be another goal to get back here next year.”

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