Niyo: Senior Night tears don’t blur MSU’s desired end game
East Lansing — This was supposed to be their night, so it only seemed right.
Cassius Winston approached Michigan State coach Tom Izzo with a simple request the day before the Spartans’ regular-season home finale against Illinois. The sophomore point guard told Izzo he wanted Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn to start in his place Tuesday. It was Senior Night, after all, and Nairn is the captain and heart-and-soul leader of this Michigan State team.
But Winston wasn’t the only one making the offer.
Nick Ward, the Spartans’ second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, had a similar request, eager to give up his spot in the middle of the lineup for Gavin Schilling, the fifth-year senior reserve who, like Nairn, was a starter for the Spartans the last time they made Final Four run in 2015.
Jaren Jackson, Michigan State’s freshman phenom, was ready to take a seat, too, for Ben Carter, the sixth-year graduate transfer whose career was derailed by injuries. Never mind that as a projected top-five pick in this year’s NBA Draft, this probably was Jackson’s final home game as well.
And on a night that went exactly as planned, that was “the coolest thing,” Izzo told the Breslin Center crowd after his Spartans had clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship with an 81-61 victory over Illinois. To have the talented young core of the nation’s No. 2-ranked team come to him offering to write this script, “instead of me saying it,” well, that’s probably the perfect ending.
Even if it’s not, as Nairn later promised near the end of an emotional postgame ceremony, telling the fans, “We’re not done. We’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.”
They do, indeed, starting with one final regular-season game Sunday at Wisconsin, where the Spartans can clinch their first outright league title since 2009 and only their third in Izzo’s tenure.
Michigan State wasn’t waiting around for that, though.
'A BOND THAT WILL NEVER BE SEPARATED'
The Big Ten championship trophy was gleaming in the middle of the Michigan State locker room late Tuesday night, and Izzo went ahead and raised a 2018 league championship banner after the game.
“Banners are what we like to do here,” he said. “But it’s one of those years where I’m not satisfied with that one.”
His players aren’t, either, whether it’s Nairn, who went to the Final Four as freshman and vowed to be back, or Miles Bridges, the sophomore star who spurned the NBA — “something very few people do anymore,” Izzo reminded the fans Tuesday — to return for another run at a national title this season.
And yet that’s a big part of why Izzo is so enamored with this tight-knit group. The way they’ve handled that pressure — and everything else that has happened on this campus this winter — without flinching. The way they checked their egos when it was time for talent to trump seniority.
“There could’ve been a lot of dissension or complaining,” Izzo said, marveling at all the unforced camaraderie. “I just haven’t seen it at all.”
So it was no surprise, really, that he didn’t this week, when it was time to turn the tables, if only ceremonially.
“I don’t want to be corny,” Izzo said. “But the love, the togetherness. I’ve had teams that were together. But I’m just not sure I’ve had teams that had as sincere a love and appreciation for each other. And that’s not a word you use in major-college football or basketball, but there’s not even a question in my mind that these guys have a bond that will never be separated.”
That’s what he reminded his team about before Tuesday’s game, grappling with his own emotions — “It’s always a bad pregame speech,” Izzo laughed — as he thanked his players for their unity, above all else, on a day he both cherishes and dreads.
It’s also what Izzo told the crowd about amid the postgame revelry, as the seniors were honored with their families and Izzo grabbed the microphone as the annual emcee. He talked about the Spartans’ preseason goals and a mantra Nairn — a player Izzo calls “the most infectious human being I’ve ever been around” — coined before practice officially started last fall: “It’s not because you got to, it’s because we get to.”
“Well,” Izzo said, pausing before delivering the emphatic punchline, “tonight, we get to win the Big Ten championship.”
'THAT'S WHY I CAME BACK'
At that, the crowd roared, and so did the players, though as the seniors took their turn addressing the fans — Bridges did as well, in an unspoken nod to the reality this was very likely his last home game as well — they made it clear they want more. They want a national championship.
“I mean, that’s why I came back,” Bridges said, “because I knew we had a great chance.”
Bridges, who led the Spartans with 19 points and five rebounds Tuesday, shrugged off questions afterward about whether this was, in fact, his Breslin farewell. But even Izzo laughed about the chants from the Izzone as Bridges stepped to the free-throw line in the second half.
“When they started chanting ‘One more year,’ I was saying, ‘Thank God for this year,’” Izzo joked.
And on this night, that’s what they all wanted to do. But especially the seniors, who’ve been there but haven’t quite done all that yet. To live in the moment, and soak it all in, from the sentimental start to the orchestrated finish.
Izzo took advantage of the 20-point margin to give his seniors a traditional sendoff. One by one, they all checked out in the game’s final minute, sharing hugs with their teammates, saluting an appreciative crowd, and then dropping to the hardwood to kiss the Spartan logo at center court.
Nairn called it “an unbelievable experience.” But what made it so special, he added, “was that I got to share it with this team.” And that he knew he wasn’t the only one sharing that sentiment.