East Lansing — Tom Izzo’s got a list, and it’s not necessarily about determining who’s naughty or nice.
When the dust settled from Tuesday’s deflating loss at home to Duke, the Michigan State coach wasn’t any less disappointed about what took place. Three days later, as the Spartans continued to prepare for the Big Ten opener Sunday against Rutgers, Izzo was, in fact, even more disillusioned by what took place.
“I don’t think we’re doing the little things,” he said.
That means making free throws, rebounding, taking care of the ball, defending and playing with energy. It was all subpar against the Blue Devils, and a full 40-minute effort has been hard to find so far this season.
But even as No. 11 Michigan State deals with its share of adversity — the loss of freshman guard Rocket Watts to a leg injury for at least Sunday’s game with no concrete timetable for his return is the latest blow — there’s one place the Spartans are looking to get a big lift.
“There's no question that Aaron Henry, we gotta get him playing better,” Izzo said. “That would probably be the first on my list.”
It’s tough to pin all the ills of a team on one player, but the Spartans (5-3) entered the season counting on the sophomore to take a significant jump this season by building off an impressive run in the NCAA Tournament. Even before they knew they’d be without senior guard Joshua Langford until at least January, the Spartans were counting on Henry to take off.
So far, the production has been sporadic. After missing the Charleston Southern game with two sprained ankles, Henry played well for the first two games at the Maui Invitational. But he was benched in the second half of the third and final game against UCLA, the coaching staff imploring him to play hard and attack the glass.
That sort of play continued against Duke as Henry took just two shots and sat for big chunks of the second half in favor of sophomore Gabe Brown.
While it might seem like Henry has become the scapegoat for Michigan State’s struggles, the pressure is there because so much is expected of the 6-foot-6 wing.
“Aaron is our most electric player,” Izzo said. “He can run, he can jump, he can rebound, he can dunk, he can score, he's still shooting pretty well and he's shooting pretty well from 3. It's the intangible things that I think he's got to bring to the table.
“So there's nothing wrong with putting pressure on your big three because that's the reason we're going to be good. It was our big four, one of those is gone, and so the big three gotta step up a notch. I spent a lot of time with Aaron the other day and I think he will.”
The other members of the big three — guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman — have, for the most part, held up their end of the bargain.
Now it’s on Henry to join in, and no one is more aware than Henry.
“I gotta rebound better, I gotta pick my shots better,” Henry said. “Just a combination of things that I just got to get better at. It'll come. I'm not putting any stress on it. The emphasis right now, obviously I need to play better and do things better, but stress-wise I'm fine with that. I know it's going to come. I obviously don’t want to lose games like we did or play the way I did, but there’s no stress just knowing I got to improve my play quickly for us to win.”
Henry and Izzo spent plenty of time over the last couple of days dissecting the film, something that can be eye-opening for a player who feels like he’s going hard during the game.
“You can have all the excuses in the world,” Henry said, “and then when it comes down to it and you look at it on film, and you look at it for what it is, it’s exactly how Coach explains it.”
Izzo and his staff have been explaining it the way they always have — by pushing as hard as they can. Henry’s been down this road before, responding to a public tongue-lashing from Izzo early in last season’s NCAA Tournament to have the best stretch of his freshman year and help the Spartans reach the Final Four.
It’s why Izzo is confident Henry will respond once again.
“He can handle it,” Izzo said. “Anybody can handle it. If you know somebody who cares about you, loves you and wants you to do your best, it’s easy.
“We’re putting pressure on Aaron and that's why he's in the position he's in. You should put pressure on your best players, but I think Aaron will respond.”
Henry isn’t wilting from that pressure, either. In fact, he appears to be welcoming it.
“It's huge,” Henry said. “It’s important to me and it’s kind of on me. I gotta be better for us to be successful, and I get that and I'm gonna get there.”
Rutgers at No. 11 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Rutgers 6-2; Michigan State 5-3
Outlook: It’s the Big Ten opener for both teams. … The Scarlet Knights have never beaten the Spartans in nine matchups but have pushed Michigan State in recent meetings. The last four games have been decided by 11 points or fewer with MSU needing overtime at home in 2018 to get the win. … Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. is averaging 13.3 points for Rutgers while sophomore center Myles Johnson is averaging nine points and 8.3 rebounds.