Marcus Bingham Jr. takes 'big step' in Michigan State's victory over Penn State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

There was a moment on Saturday night when Aaron Henry stood near the scorer’s table, hands open, earnestly talking to his teammate, roommate and fellow class member Marcus Bingham Jr.

Bingham was about to check back into the game in the second half after getting pulled just 30 seconds after halftime when he took an ill-advised jumper from the corner early in the shot clock, and Henry was imploring Bingham to pick up the energy.

Penn State's John Harrar and Marcus Bingham Jr. battle for a rebound in the second half Tuesday night in East Lansing.

It was a familiar scene for the Michigan State junior. Full of potential since the day he arrived on campus with Henry, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier, Bingham has spent the better part of the last 2½ years leaving the Spartans coaching staff and fans wondering whether it would ever all come together.

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At 6-foot-11, Bingham always has had the skill, but often it was unclear if he had the desire. Shuffled in and out of the lineup, Bingham would show flashes but never hid when he was feeling down, leading to more time on the bench than not.

Three games ago, however, Bingham got the call again to start. At a center position that has resembled a revolving door all season, Bingham was getting another shot. And on Tuesday night in a two-point win over Penn State — the first time the Spartans have won back-to-back games since early January — Bingham played a crucial role. He played 18 minutes, grabbed a season-high nine rebounds, blocked a shot and his two free throws with 1:18 to play proved to be the winners as he scored six points and helped Michigan State avoid another second-half collapse.

“All in all, I thought Marcus played better,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He played within himself. He didn't take any shots that he can make but hasn't made yet, so why take them now? Why don't we get that down in practice? But I thought he was a difference in this game. He has size and his shot-blocking a couple times. Yeah, I was pleased by Marcus. He played 18 minutes and didn’t look dead tired. And that guy's a load he played against (Penn State’s John Harrar), was us up on ball screens. He did a lot of good things.

“It’s just a step, guys, it's a step. But it's a big step.”

It was a big step for Bingham and it could be a big step for Michigan State (10-7, 4-7 Big Ten) as it tries to make a furious push down the stretch to bolster its flimsy NCAA Tournament resume. An energized Bingham, a confident Bingham, could bring plenty of life to a stagnant offense and a defense that could use a rim protector.

And if he’s starting to understand and buy-in to what the coaching staff has been hammering home the past couple of years, this could be a turning point.

“Just trying to take my time and make the right play,” Bingham said. “Just being patient with everything and let everything come to me and not try to force anything.

“It’s really just growing up. That’s really what I can (say) for that. Because these (coaches) have been in the game for a long time. There’s over 100-plus years of experience in this program and this facility. So really it’s just listening to everybody and being the leader I need to be and really just taking the next step.”

That next step was evident on Tuesday. Bingham was aggressive, attacking the rim when he got the chance instead of being passive, passing up 3-pointers and passing the ball looking for a better shot, and, most importantly, he never let his frustrations show.

He could have, especially after picking up his second foul. But instead of hanging his head, Bingham told his coaches he was up to the task of slowing Harrar, a 6-9 bully for the Nittany Lions.

That was a big step for Bingham, one that has taken him some time but also one he’s now aware of.

“It started with my body language and being more engaged,” Bingham said. “As a junior I can't let myself get down and let things anybody says to me get in my head and take me out my game. I feel like there have been a couple games this season where I let that happen. So, it’s just me growing up. I’ve got to stay in the game.”

That’s likely music to Izzo’s ears while the rest of the Spartans were fired up, as well as the prepare to host Iowa on Saturday.

“He competed, he rebounded, he blocked shots, man he was everywhere,” Henry said. “I'm proud of him, and he took some steps tonight for sure.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau