East Lansing — Michigan State was feeling good earlier in the week after it had dispatched Illinois by 20 points and found itself still sitting atop the Big Ten standings as conference play resumed.
With rival Michigan coming to town on Sunday afternoon, things were going well.
However, there was one aspect coach Tom Izzo wasn’t loving in the first part of the season. Even as shots were starting to fall and the Spartans’ superstar, guard Cassius Winston, was starting to find a rhythm, Izzo wanted to see more leadership from his team.
As he’s always said, a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team.
At halftime on Sunday, Izzo didn’t think any progress had been made, so he challenged his team. By the time No. 14 Michigan State had beaten No. 12 Michigan, 87-69, at the Breslin Center, the first signs of a shift had started.
Winston was directing teammates in huddles while Xavier Tillman jumped on teammate Gabe Brown after Brown failed to box out, allowing Michigan to come up with a second-half offensive rebound.
The two captains were starting to do exactly what their coach has been pushing them to do.
“Our job is to correct our teammates if they make mistakes and our teammates’ job is to correct us when we make mistakes,” Tillman explained. “That's the only way we're going to get better each and every day. So, we definitely have that confidence where we can help coach the guys and they can help coach us and we take constructive criticism.”
It hasn’t always worked that way, and when the leadership on the floor is lacking, it can be tough to overcome.
Izzo has long pushed for his players to be the ones pushing themselves, seeing it as far more constructive than when it just comes from the coaches. From Mateen Cleaves to Travis Walton to Draymond Green to Denzel Valentine, the Spartans’ best leaders have never been afraid to get after their teammates.
If Sunday’s victory was the latest step for Michigan State, it should be a sign of good things to come.
“Our leadership's getting better,” Izzo said. “There's two kinds of leadership, one that drags everybody together and one that demands. We're getting the drag-together (leadership) and at halftime I challenged a couple of those guys to demand from a couple guys, to hold them accountable.
“That'll be the next step of this program that the Cleaves and the Waltons and the Draymonds and the Valentines had. They had people fear them a little bit. Fear sometimes is a good thing, especially with accountability stuff.”
With senior guard Joshua Langford back on campus for the first time since undergoing surgery on his left foot in December, a procedure that assured he would not play this season, it’s fair to point out that the Spartans were relatively healthy when they took on the Wolverines.
Things aren’t perfect, but with Winston in his second game back from sitting out with a bone bruise in his knee, freshman Rocket Watts slowly working back from his leg injury and senior Kyle Ahrens fighting through a bad Achilles, Michigan State at least has all its pieces.
Winston missed just one game with the left knee issue, but it had Izzo wondering before tip.
“My trainer was really concerned before the game, he said he had been working on him,” Izzo said. “That knee is still something that he gets worked on all the time.”
Ahrens has battled more injuries than most, and the Achilles has been a new ailment. But the fifth-year senior played a little more than 10 minutes and hit a couple of big perimeter shots.
Watts also made progress, seeing two 3-pointers go in late in the game.
“I was really happy for Rocket Watts to make a couple shots of his,” Izzo said. “He's been working hard at it while we had this break and I told him at the end, it's kind of funny how things work out when you work on them.”
Winston moved past Denzel Valentine for 11th place on Michigan State’s all-time scoring list. He now has 1,685 career points and needs 33 points to pass Mike Robinson for 10th place.
Winston also handed out nine assists and now has 802 career assists, trailing Cleaves by 15 for the all-time lead at MSU.
… Michigan State blocked a season-high 12 shots. It was the most since MSU blocked 14 against Indiana last year. The 12 blocks are tied for the fourth-most against a Big Ten opponent.
… Tillman had a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth this season and the 11th of his career. Tillman also blocked a career-high six shots, the fourth-most in program history and the most since Kenny Goins had eight last year against Indiana.