East Lansing — One of the more interesting moments in Michigan State’s loss to Penn State on Saturday came in the second half when a rebound fell to the floor and instead of diving after it, freshman Miles Bridges watched as a Penn State player grabbed the ball.
The whistle blew after a foul and immediately, junior Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn was in the face of his younger teammate, pleading with him, yelling at him to be more aggressive and go after the ball.
However, what was truly interesting wasn’t the fact the star freshman was getting an earful. After all, Bridges is still searching for a comfort zone after missing seven games with an ankle injury. No, that exchange said far more about Nairn than it did about Bridges.
“I was so excited for Tum that he went over and told him what he should have done,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought that Tum needed to take a step to hold people accountable to how we need to play to win. He did that and our team will be a better team because of that if he can do that on a regular basis. There’s enough respect for him.”
There seems little doubt of that. From freshman to senior it’s clear — Nairn is the leader of this basketball team.
“He was a great leader my freshmen year but he kind of took a backseat, kind fell back to someone like Denzel (Valentine),” said sophomore Kenny Goins, who came to Michigan State the same year as Nairn. “But this year it really is his team, his ship. Him and Coach Izz are as close as you can be. He’s become that upperclassman we need to step up and tell the freshmen what to do and he has taken all four freshmen under his wing more than anyone I’ve seen the way he’s pushed them along.”
There’s never seemed much doubt this was the role Nairn was destined to play for the Spartans. As a four-star recruit, Nairn was known as a solid defender that played hard but was limited offensively.
For the better part of his first two seasons that was the case. Nairn was an outstanding on-ball defender who looked to distribute on offense. As far as him scoring, well, that was another story. He put in tons of work in the offseason leading into his sophomore year, but plantar fasciitis limited him and he was even more limited offensively last year.
This season Nairn has been healthy and so has his offense. He scored 13 points against Penn State, matching his season and career high, and has been far more aggressive taking the ball to the basket. Nairn has also made eight 3-pointers after making just six in his career entering this season.
Having that confidence makes him a better leader, but Nairn believes he’d still be leading even if he wasn’t scoring. To him, it’s more important to be disciplined to be an effective leader.
“To be a leader, for me, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing good offensively,” Nairn said. “That is just who I am naturally. That’s what I was born to do so for me it’s just making sure that I don’t make mistakes messing up defensive assignments, making sure I can get on guys because I’m doing the right things. It’s hard to get on somebody if you’re not doing the right things. So my offense and playing well doesn’t have anything to do with feeling comfortable with the team.”
It might not, but the Spartans are sure glad to have that offensive spark from Nairn. It came in handy the last time the Spartans faced Minnesota as Nairn nailed a pair of second-half 3-pointers as Michigan State rallied for the win.
Michigan State will need it again as it hosts Minnesota at 7 Wednesday at the Breslin Center. Nairn might be back in the starting lineup after conceding the spot to freshman Cassius Winston the last four games, but even if he’s not, the Spartans know how important it will be to get off to a better start than they have the last two games.
“We can’t come out slow like we have been lately,” Bridges said. “We’ve got to go right at them from the jump.”
Having Nairn leading the way would put them in the best position for that start.
“Tum is the most important player and leader on this team,” Bridges said. “He brings us together in hard times and keeps our spirit up in down times, too. So if it wasn’t for Tum we wouldn’t have won half as many games as we’ve won.”
No. 24 Minnesota at Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Minnesota 15-2, 3-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 11-6, 3-1
Outlook: The teams enter the game in a four-way tie atop the Big Ten along with Purdue and Nebraska. … Michigan State won the first meeting, 75-74, in overtime on Dec. 27. … Minnesota freshman Amir Coffey is coming off his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week award and is averaging 12.8 points a game. … Minnesota won its last trip to Breslin, a 96-90 overtime win on Feb. 26, 2015.