East Lansing — After a couple of labored minutes at Purdue last month, it was clear.
Kyle Ahrens needed a break
The fifth-year senior has been through the gauntlet during his Michigan State career. There’s been a lost season, multiple games missed and countless time in the trainer’s room. This time it was the sore Achilles that had Ahrens struggling to get up and down the court. It had been building throughout the season and now it was getting to be too much.
So, instead of hobble along, the decision was made to give Ahrens some time off. The feeling then back in mid-January was to get Ahrens as prepared as possible for the stretch run, figuring even a part-time Ahrens was better than none at all.
He took three full games off before starting to work his way back as Tom Izzo and his staff have tried to limit Ahrens to about 15 minutes a game. It has fluctuated — he played 19 in the loss at Michigan — but as the Spartans find themselves slogging through a five-game stretch that has produced just one victory with young players still finding themselves, it’s about that time where the caution is tossed aside.
It might be time to get one of Michigan State’s most battle-tested players on the floor.
“Deep down, am I saying 14 (minutes) would be better than 22 if it means we can keep him?” Izzo said. “Probably. But it’s like I tell them, you know, ‘Get out of a little bit of this in practice, get out of a little bit of that.’
“But now, I think his confidence is back.”
That became clear to Izzo during Saturday’s game against Maryland Ahrens leaped high in the air going after a rebound in a crowd of players. It was a play almost identical to the one against Michigan in last season’s Big Ten tournament championship game when Ahrens suffered a grade 3 sprain in his ankle after landing on another player’s foot and crumbling to the floor.
“That was the first time since that game that he went up in traffic,” Izzo said. “And he'd tell you that, too, and he's not a soft kid.”
Izzo was right.
“That was the first time I really jumped,” Ahrens said. “I still had the feeling in the back of my head and watching what was under me, but that was the first time I felt like I actually jumped, I actually went to go get a rebound at my peak rather than just like kind of slightly jumping. So it felt really good.
“When I came back in the huddle Coach gave me a huge high-five on that one. It feels good but the hardest thing is doing it the first time. Once you do it the first time, it starts rolling. I’ll continue to grow from that, that’s a positive for me.”
Getting Ahrens back at 100 percent could be coming at the perfect time for the Spartans (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten), who head to Nebraska on Thursday night before closing the regular season with a tough stretch of home games against Iowa and Ohio State sandwiched around back-to-back road games with Penn State and Maryland.
While Ahrens might not light up the scoreboard, he has the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates that when games are on the line, he’ll make the right play and hit a timely shot, as he did when he tied the game with a 3-pointer late in the second half against Maryland.
Ahrens is up for it, saying there’s no point in holding back now as his Michigan State career winds down.
“I’m at the point, if I’ve got to go for it, I’m going for it,” Ahrens said. “It doesn’t matter how much it is. If I’m helping, I’m going to be out there.”
If Izzo is ready to commit to pushing Ahrens even harder, he needs to know there will be no holding back. He’ll need Ahrens being himself, diving for loose balls, taking charges, being the emotional catalyst for the Spartans.
“You can't live to die,” Izzo said. “You can't do that. You can't live to avoid injuries. You gotta live to do your best and whatever happens, happens. It’s easier said than done, but I think he's back to that mental frame of mind. And that would help us a lot, because he just gives us some things.”
Ahrens wants to go all out over the final month-and-a-half of his career. He wants to provide all those things Izzo says the Spartans need.
He wants it for him, but it doesn’t end there.
“Just being able to play is positive for me,” Ahrens said. “I’m just going to continue to go out there, give it all I’ve got, give as many minutes as I can. I owe that to Cassius (Winston), I owe that to X (Xavier Tillman), I owe that to Henny (Aaron Henry), I owe that to all these guys that put in the time and play for me. I owe it to the coaches, to this program, all the past players that I played with. I owe it to them.”