Evanston, Ill. — Before Michigan State’s season began, coach Tom Izzo talked a lot about the Spartans’ success hinging on the “big three.”
That trio was guards Cassius Winston and Aaron Henry along with big man Xavier Tillman. It seemed like a given that Winston would fulfill that expectation while Tillman seemed like a solid bet, too. Henry was the wild card and he’s had his share of struggles this season.
During No. 15 Michigan State’s 77-72 victory over Northwestern on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, there was further evidence a fourth player might be joining that critical group — sophomore wing Gabe Brown.
“Maybe, maybe,” Brown said with a big laugh. “Right now I'm just gonna keep working, keep working. Everybody is just trying to keep working.”
Brown was being a bit modest on this night. After all, he had just recorded his first career double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, the most in his career. The other highlight for Brown, who has now started four games this season, was going 3-for-4 from 3-point range after missing all five on Saturday in the win over Oakland.
“This past week since the Oakland game and leading up to this game, I've just been missing lately,” Brown said. “I've been working so hard on it. I’ve been getting into gym at night just working on it, working on it and trying to perfect it.”
Perfection might be tough, but there’s no doubt Brown has provided a spark to the starting lineup since freshman Rocket Watts was sidelined with a stress reaction in his left leg. His emergence has also come as Henry fights to become the player the Spartans need.
In Wednesday’s win, Henry grabbed eight rebounds and defended well, but he was 1-for-9 shooting and turned the ball over six times. That made Brown’s performance all the more critical, and even bigger if Henry starts to find some consistency.
“We’re not connected right now,” Izzo said. “We're just getting back into the real world a little bit and it’s fun to see Cassius with a smile on his face in the locker room, and that's been a plus. I think figuring out who that four man is going to be on a consistent basis and getting my three big guys going, which is Aaron Henry, Cassius and X, and then Gabe Brown is starting to work his way in.”
'Turnovers for touchdowns'
Turnovers have been Michigan State’s Achilles heel at various times over the years, and on Wednesday it committed 16 of them. That’s not the most this season and it was three more than the Spartans’ season average, but what hurt the most was the fact it led to 24 points for Northwestern.
“It’s just embarrassing and they weren't pressing,” Izzo said. “So 24 points off turnovers, that's the difference in the game. That was the only real disappointing thing.”
The turnover numbers have been all over the place this season for the Spartans. They gave it up 17 times against Oakland but just four times in a win over Binghamton. In the three losses, Michigan State had 16, 16 and 14 turnovers.
The fact the turnovers led to easy buckets on Wednesday was the real issue.
“When you have turnovers for touchdowns like we did,” Izzo said shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s been the norm. I mean, some of those were so — what's an impolite word? — dumb. They we're really dumb. And we just can't do that.”
Henry had six turnovers and was quick to put the blame on himself.
“It would be easy to point at me,” Henry said. “You can point that finger at me and I'd be all right with it, but I'm gonna get better at it. As far as the team goes, I thought they did all they could and me being one of the better players on the team I need to realize in my game, I can't do that. If we want to have success, on the road especially, I gotta be better.”
Watts did not play for the third straight game as he recovers from a stress reaction in his lower left leg. He did not take part in warm-ups, but he is no longer wearing the protective boot on his left foot.
Izzo said earlier in the week the freshman guard was a question mark this week, and that includes Saturday’s home game against Eastern Michigan.
“Hopefully, we're going to get Rocket back,” Izzo said. “If not this weekend, pretty soon.”