TULSA, Okla. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo probably didn’t sleep much before this season. Most college coaches don’t.
Now he’s got four freshmen handling the bulk of the scoring and playing the most minutes, and his eyes probably never close. It’s been brought up a lot, but Izzo keeps getting reminders about the youth and inexperience of his team.
Like when the ball tipped late Friday night against Miami, and big man Nick Ward picked up a foul two seconds into the game while lunging for it. Izzo could barely control himself. Ward averages a foul every seven minutes, and that was pretty darn close to the last thing he wanted to see.
“I don’t sleep any nights worried about Nick getting in foul trouble just because of our lack of depth at that position,” Izzo said after the Spartans beat Miami 78-58 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “And he set not only a North American record but a Michigan State record … I hope he wants to get in the record books for more than fastest foul.”
Izzo had been worried about Ward and freshman point guard Cassius Winston all week. Miami point guard Ja’Quan Newton likes to use ball screens to get to the rim, and the Spartans worked all week to nail down the defense.
“How long did we work on it, Nick?” Izzo asked Ward in the press conference.
“Every practice,” Ward responded.
And yet Newton found his way to the rim early in the game — first against junior Tum Tum Nairn, and then against Winston. The Spartans, down 10-0 early, looked like they were headed for an early tournament exit.
But who was there to flip the switch? The freshmen. Winston pushed the ball up the floor and tossed a nifty bounce pass to Ward, who had cleared acres of space for himself to turn and toss in a bucket through contact.
Miles Bridges, who had been too quick to shoot 3-pointers against the Miami 2-3 zone, started to work the baseline and create havoc that the Hurricanes couldn’t handle without abandoning shooters.
And Josh Langford, who has often turned down open shots in the flow of the Spartans’ half-court offense, let fly in the second half, scoring 9 of their 11 points in the first 5 minutes after the break. It was almost enough for Izzo to forgive the first half.
“God, I wanted to kill him because then he had a couple shots he didn’t look for, wasn’t ready to shoot,” Izzo said. “And he’s been shooting really well in practice. I think what you saw in him is maturation.”
The freshmen have shown seemingly lasting glimpses of maturity throughout the season. And then they set themselves back. Those glimpses of maturity only serve as a lasting advantage when combined with consistency.
What made this performance stand out was the response to a big-time challenge. Faced with the prospect of the end of their season, the freshmen took charge in turning the game completely on its head — and made NCAA Tournament history.
The Spartans freshmen made March Madness history on Friday when they scored a total of 57 points to set a tournament record.
- Nick Ward: 19 points
- Miles Bridges: 18 points
- Josh Langford: 13 points
- Cassius Winston: 7 points
Michigan State freshmen make NCAA Tournament history
Michigan State: Freshmen combined for 57 points (most in NCAA Tournament game in school history)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 18, 2017
“Coach Izzo’s prepared us this whole year,” Winston said after the game. “We’ve played the best teams in the country. We’ve played in the best arenas, the hardest environments. We’ve been down before in places where it’s hard to come back from.”
Winston paused for a second and then said something that, when taken at face value, seems a bit exaggerated coming from a freshman. But he said it with conviction.
“We’ve seen it all.”