Michigan State opened up the NCAA Tournament by beating Miami (Fla.) 78-58 on Friday night. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo explained how the Spartans picked up an easy victory, why the play of freshman forward Nick Ward showed leadership and more.
ON WHO PROVIDED LEADERSHIP TONIGHT: “I saw a lot of guys grow. I was too mad at Nick (Ward) for him to lead there for a minute, but you know what he didn’t pout. He didn’t sit back. He kind of owned it a little bit, and those are all big steps, but Miles (Bridges) — Tum Tum (Narin) still does it. Miles did it a little bit. I saw a little more out of (Matt) McQuaid, and (Joshua) Langford had some energy tonight.
“So I don’t know if it was one guy or collectively. I don’t know. You tell me. You were out there. I wasn’t out there. Is there anybody else I’m missing?”
ON THE TEAM’S TOUGH SCHEDULING PAYING OFF IN MARCH: “I don’t think there’s any question. I mean, one of the talks we gave in the pregame was about this is a big game. But we played at Duke. We played Kentucky in Madison Square Garden. We played Arizona out in Hawaii. I mean, we’ve been on big stages all year long. And I think it hurt us some in the travel and everything, and but you’ll have to ask them. I think they had confidence that they could play in a big stage.
Now, the first five minutes I questioned that, but boy, from then on I really felt that was a big part of, you know, they weren’t intimidated. They weren’t — they didn’t get down when they got down, what, 12, 13. I don’t know what we were down. But yeah, I think it helped us some. I really do.”
ON FACING KANSAS IN THE SECOND ROUND: ” Yeah, you know, (Kansas coach) Bill (Self) and I when he was at Illinois, you know, we’re friends. We’ve been on the board together, and we’ve played them a lot. I mean almost every year — not every year, but we’re playing them in the NCAA tournament. We play them in the Tournament of Champions. We saw them in Arizona and I only saw a little bit of them tonight, thank God. I saw the good part when they were only up 4 with eight minutes left and then they burned UC Davis. But they got a good team, veteran team. They got all those seniors, juniors and Josh is a heck of a player.
“But you know, we get to work again. I told my guys all I want to do is work another night and get a chance to go against one of the top teams. Hey, guys, we’ve played three teams that were No. 1 in the country, Baylor, Kentucky and Duke at one time. We played Arizona, got as high as 3. It’s not like — I think Kansas is a hell of a team, and I think Mason is an exceptional guard, and I thought Josh is playing at a very high level.
“But we’ve played a lot of big teams all year. Maybe we can use this again, and yet, they’re kind of playing in their own backyard. It’s going to be fun.
“I appreciate Bill. I appreciate their program and what they’ve done. But tonight I appreciate my guys. Nobody will know the year we’ve gone through. And for them to do what they did tonight speaks volume of the character of the guys I got.”
ON WARD’S BALL SCREENS: ” I thought Nick did a better job — and then I’ll let him answer it. I thought Nick, you know, we changed our ball screen for another time. We’ve been trying to make up for it, something Nick’s struggled with a little bit, Cassius has struggled with a little bit.
“I thought both guys did a much better job tonight, and I thought, again, my staff did a good job, and we got some time to work on it. What do you think, Nick?”
ON IF HE THOUGHT THE TEAM COULD WIN AFTER THE SLOW START: “I did. I was worried about whether these freshmen would handle the big stage, even though they’ve been on one, it’s still the NCAA tournament and the difference with now the Kentuckys and the Dukes and the Arizonas and the Baylors and all those and then our conference schedule, the difference now is it’s one-and-done time.
“But, you know, in a way, guys, we’ve been feeling like it’s one-and-done time for about a month now because we had to win big games at Nebraska and some road games and beat Wisconsin at home. This wasn’t a typical Michigan State road to the NCAA tournament, and I don’t know. You know, I told these guys, I’ve had a lot of good teams, I’ve had a lot of great guys. I’ve never, ever — and coaches say this — had a team that has stuck together like these guys. And I think it starts with the two best players that are sitting up here are egoless and have adjusted with the seniors. The seniors, give Eron Harris some credit, too. He’s hung in there with us all week and Alvin Ellis have accepted them and what a cool thing to watch happen, and I’d like to keep it going a little while.
“Unfortunately, there’s a buzz saw in front of us, but we’ve had that all year. Might as well do it one more time.”
ON LANGFORD’S PLAY: “These guys would agree. In the second half he started looking for his shot and then, God, I wanted to kill him because then he had a couple shots he didn’t look for, wasn’t ready to shoot. And he’s been shooting really well in practice. I think what you saw in him is maturation. As Nick said, the process. The process is you grow as a player and these guys have had to kind of grow on their own. There’s not a lot of people around them to lead, and I think Josh Langford, these guys have been pretty solid. I thought Josh and Cassius took major steps in the last couple of weeks really, but tonight I’d say really, really. So yeah, Josh Langford was awesome. On defense, too.”