East Lansing — Juwan Howard ran onto the court in the middle of the game, so what would have been the big deal if Tom Izzo stopped things to give Xavier Tillman a big smooch?
OK, as wild as Breslin Center was on Sunday afternoon when Michigan State beat Michigan for the fourth straight time to remain unbeaten in the Big Ten, it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t include Izzo kissing his junior center.
But after Izzo watched film and saw how Tillman called out sophomore Gabe Brown when he failed to block out on a second-half rebound, it was easy for him to declare it one of the best moments of the game.
“I went back and watched that because I didn't see it during the game,” Izzo explained on Tuesday. “If I saw that during the game I’d have to call a timeout and kiss the guy, personally, if I saw it during the game. I didn't see it there in the game, but the number of other coaches and people that have called me has been crazy. It's been crazy.
“I absolutely thought it was one of the highlights of the game and so did my staff, my team and many coaches around the country.”
Why was one player yelling at another a highlight on a day that Cassius Winston scored a career-high 32 points with nine assists and Tillman recorded his sixth double-double of the season? Because it goes toward everything Izzo has preached since the day he began coaching.
A player-coached team is always better than a coach-coached team, Izzo has always said. And when it comes to holding the players accountable, there’s no one better to do that than a teammate.
“When you hear it from a coach it just feels like it's nagging,” Brown explained. “But when you hear from a player it's like, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta improve. I've got to get better.’ And when X got on me it just made me realize that he's there for me. He wants me to get better. He doesn’t want anyone to make a mistake because he's trying to get to the next level
“It’s important because you don’t always want to hear it from the coaches. Just in practice today Cash got on me for not boxing out or something like that, or not checking or something. It is very important from a player perspective.”
Rarely are there championship teams that succeed without players holding each other accountable.
Izzo has told the story many times over the years that during a Sweet 16 game against Syracuse at The Palace in 2000, Mateen Cleaves challenged Morris Peterson at halftime and the Spartans went on to roll in the second half, eventually winning a national championship a little more than a week later.
That’s when it became clear to Izzo that he and his staff could yell and push and prod as much as they wanted, but it would only take the Spartans so far. And as connected as this team is, it’s needed someone to start getting after people.
Tillman did that on Sunday.
“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 on Sunday. “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.”
That’s the other key component to the formula. It’s one thing to get after a teammate. It’s another for that teammate to understand it’s never personal.
“It’s all respect,” Winston said. “It’s all out of a lot of love. It’s all about the fact we want the best for each other. So, when we say something it’s never out of just being mean or anything like that. It's really something that we see that we feel like they have to get better at.”
And there are no limits to who’s calling out who.
“It’s just holding guys accountable for their job,” Winston said. “Everybody has a job on this team. If I'm messing up, X is quick to say something. It’s the same for me with X, so it’s just about holding guys accountable for what they are for this team.”
As No. 8 Michigan State (12-3, 4-0 Big Ten) prepares to host Minnesota on Thursday before hitting the road to take on Purdue on Sunday, it will do so knowing it has been built in a way that players are comfortable dealing with the constructive criticism Tillman talked about.
It doesn’t happen with every team, but if Sunday was any indication, the Spartans have the right makeup for it.
“It was awesome,” Izzo said. “It was and what I really liked about it is that (Brown) came to the bench and (associate head coach Dwayne Stephens) got him and Gabe took the whole thing. We all laughed in here, but I (told my team), ‘That is what's needed and you young guys better understand that.’ Because that’s my other point about a player-coached team.”