"What still drives me today is to help guys to live the same dream I’ve gotten to live," Izzo says. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Expectations are high at Michigan State.
No one is shying away from it. Whether the Spartans are named the preseason No. 1 team in the nation or not, they’ll certainly be a favorite to get back to the Final Four and win the national championship.
“I know this is a good team, and I'm not afraid of that at all,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on Tuesday. “I'm excited about it. … I can't wait to get started, because I do think this has the potential to be a special year.”
There are obvious reasons why so much is expected of the Spartans. The return of Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston is at the top of that list, as is the presence of a healthy Joshua Langford. An experienced Xavier Tillman also will play a key role as will the influx of freshmen talent, led by guard Rocket Watts.
But there is one player many are pointing to saying he is the "X" factor, the one guy who could go from having a good start to his career to super stardom in the blink of an eye.
That player is sophomore Aaron Henry.
“His spring, summer, and fall have been off the charts as far as his work ethic,” Izzo said. “He's still got to get better with his shot and a little bit better offensive rebounding, but running the lane, going hard, playing defense — that kid's giving me everything he's got.”
And that’s without playing a game yet this season.
But what has people excited about Henry is what they saw to close last season. The national spotlight burned after a win over Bradley to open in the NCAA Tournament when Izzo laid into Henry during a timeout, causing someone to question whether Izzo was being too hard on his freshman guard.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that Henry had no problem with his coach. In fact, instead of wilt, Henry took off, helping spark Michigan State’s run to the Final Four. He had nine points and nine rebounds two days later against Minnesota before scoring a career-high 20 in the Sweet 16 victory over LSU. He logged 38 minutes in the win over Duke and scored 11 in the national semifinal loss to Texas Tech.
Hardly the type of production from a guy some thought might have been traumatized. To Henry, playing for Izzo has had the opposite effect.
“My eyes are going to be on him, whether he's talking to me or screaming at me and cussing me out,” Henry said, “because I must be doing something to be getting cussed out. So, you can't look at it like (it’s bad). I think that's the problem with the way a lot of people see things. Not everybody can handle criticism and just getting harped on and just getting taught something, you know?
“No matter how it looks, it's just all love with him and you can't be mad at that. You CAN NOT be mad because he wants to see the best for you, and people don't understand that.”
The best for Henry seems to have no limit at this point. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound wing from Indianapolis was just scratching the surface last season. Thrust into a larger role when Langford was lost for the season in January to a broken foot, there were plenty of growing pains for Henry.
There were nights like the one at Ohio State when a late 3-pointer and two free throws clinched a huge road win in the Big Ten or the 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting against Maryland. However, there were games like Ohio State’s visit to East Lansing that included nine pedestrian minutes or four turnovers in 14 minutes at Illinois.
The strong finish, though, came when Henry stopped being so hard on himself.
“I mean, I realized it was just basketball and I'm putting too much pressure on it,” Henry said. “I’m realizing that it's been a game my whole life and I’m wanting to change something. I’m like, ‘No, it's been basketball my whole life. That's what I've been playing, so I'm gonna just keep it at that and realize it's just a game and it's not life or death.’ I think making it smaller like that in my mind, I would say that focus and just dumbing it down almost, made it easier for me on the court to just play and not think about it so much.
“I'm just glad things worked out the way they did to where I woke up in a sense and just prepared myself for this moment.”
This moment, of course, is the opportunity to become an important cog in a team with national championship aspirations. He ended up being an important piece last season, but that was as much by chance as anything.
Now, the focus will be on Henry. He’s taken Izzo’s coaching to heart, spending most of his offseason working on becoming a better ball-handler, refining his shot and preparing himself to go hard every day, something he admitted he still needs to be reminded of from time to time.
“Just yesterday, I was I was kind of loafing and in a different zone and he chewed me out pretty good,” Henry said. “I started playing better in practice.”
Henry assured everyone around a similar push from Izzo wouldn’t be necessary again this season, at least not one like against Bradley last season. From that moment, Izzo has seen Henry dedicate himself to being a player that never takes a break.
“You'd better give Aaron some credit that from Day One he didn't even blink at that,” Izzo said. “Never complained about it, said he deserved it.
“If there is ever a time that I was proud of a kid, his next two weeks were phenomenal.”
And now he expectation is for Henry’s next season to be phenomenal. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 22 minutes a game last season, but it’s hard to see a scenario where each of those numbers doesn’t increase.
Just like the Spartans aren’t running from expectations, neither is Henry. He’s embraced the attention, the talk of how he can take his game to another level.
“It's a blessing because you know?” Henry said. “I feel like I've put my head down all summer, just been working for a moment like this and the time like this is truly a blessing. I wouldn't be here without my parents, without Jesus my Lord and Savior, and I'm just excited.
“I think about it every day and we have huge expectations, but it's just everything I pray for. I mean, what do I have to be afraid of?”
Nothing, least of all a coach getting on his case.