TULSA, Okla. — Somebody doesn’t want Michigan State to grow up.
After Spartans coach Tom Izzo used a metaphor to describe his team’s maturity — “We did remove the diapers” — following a Big Ten Tournament win against Penn State, he received a dozen diapers in the mail. Really.
The sender likely meant it as an insult, but Izzo told the story so nonchalantly that it seemed like he hadn’t thought twice about it. He even used it as an opportunity to develop his metaphor.
“It is time to take them off,” he said Thursday at his NCAA Tournament news conference the before Michigan State’s Friday opener against Miami (Fla.). “They’re guys now that have been through a lot of wars, and the young guys I think have improved in a lot of ways.”
So, when is the time? Judging from Izzo’s multiple discussions about diapers, Michigan State took them off in beating Penn State, put them back on in the subsequent loss to Minnesota, and now needs to take them off again.
Enough about diapers. The point is, if Michigan State’s four freshmen don’t show that they’ve grown up, their first NCAA Tournament run will quickly come to an end.
Nerves? If the freshmen have any, they’ve done a good job masking it. They smiled their way through an entertaining open practice on BOK Center floor.
“I’m not really nervous,” said Miles Bridges, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. “I’m just really excited to get out there and play with my teammates. I love my team. So I just want to show everybody what we can do.”
At 19-14, ninth-seeded Michigan State has shown it can do a lot of good, but it hasn’t shown the ability to do it consistently. Thus the removal and replacement of the diapers.
That confidence, in part, emanates from playing for a coach who has reached 13 Sweet 16s and seven Final Fours in 20 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. They might not have the experience, but they’re getting advice from someone who has enough for all of them.
“He knows what it takes to win and win big,” freshman point guard Cassius Winston said of Izzo. “He’s trusting us, and we’re trusting him to get us there.”
Fifty-six percent of Michigan State’s scoring this year has come from its four freshmen: Bridges, Winston, Josh Langford and Nick Ward. Bridges and Ward have been consistent double-digit scorers, while the other two will likely be X-factors on Friday. Their performance could dictate the outcome against the eighth-seeded Hurricanes (21-11).
Back in East Lansing, they could talk about “one-and-done time,” but when the players arrived in Tulsa, the enormity of the tournament finally washed over the youngsters. They feel tip-off coming up fast. And the nerves? Still well-hidden, if they’re present at all.
“Another day, and we’re gonna be on the floor playing to advance,” Winston said. “We’re finally in that mode.”