DES MOINES — Surprises have been few early in this NCAA tournament, unless one counts the fact that Tom Izzo has reached his 24th season and his 22nd NCAA tournament with a push for his eighth Final Four amid the first real national discussion about the ranting aspect of his coaching methods.
As East Region No. 2 seed Michigan State (29-6) prepped for a second-round match Saturday night against No. 10 seed Minnesota (22-13), a trip around the Michigan State locker room on Friday ran across amusement that the thing had become a thing.
The thing happened during a timeout in the first round Thursday. Izzo noticed freshman Aaron Henry flagging in effort. Izzo tore at Henry face-to-face with the coach’s face straight out of either a horror film or a college basketball sideline. Henry’s teammates tried to divert Izzo toward the next play call. It looked graphic unless it looked routine.
The national discussion about how one should coach, a discussion forever worthwhile, began anew on social media in a country always seeking to locate its chosen line to draw in such matters. Those upbraiding Izzo met online with those supporting Izzo (including a raft of his former players), until by Friday, Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News said, “The outrage against the outrage is increasingly outrageous.”
Meanwhile, the Spartans had drawn their particular line, and the latest Izzo rant did not near it.
“Oh, we laugh,” senior Kenny Goins said. “We laughed today about it, especially with all the coverage we’re getting. All of us know that he loves us and would do anything for us . . . We laugh about it all the time. We mock him sometimes. He’ll hear us. He gets it. He knows that it’s fun and games, because in the moment, it’s all emotion. It’s gonna happen. At the end of the day, we’re all family, still.”
“We joked with him, about it,” star guard Cassius Winston said of Henry, soon adding: “It’s funny, [Izzo] cares that much. He cares that much . . . The only reason we’re holding him back is, ‘Now we’ve got to try to run something to win the game.’ So it wasn’t that big of a deal. We talked about it, laughed about it, because like I said, people outside looking in probably don’t know all that goes on behind us and all that goes into this team.”
“It’s just that sense of knowing that you’re getting ready to hear it,” an unbothered Henry said. “You’re getting ready to hear it from him, and it’s okay. He’s trying to get you to understand that you can’t do that at that time. People are depending on you, the players are depending on you, not to mess up at that time.”
Even during the program’s ultimate Izzo-era moment, its 89-76 win over Florida for the 2000 national championship game, a reporter behind the Michigan State bench marveled at how Izzo tore into Mateen Cleaves, the bulwark of the team and the Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four. Almost 19 years after that, as Michigan State’s struggle with Bradley wore on on Thursday, writers who cover the Spartans began to get word of something they found weird.
“It was odd for me,” said Matt Charboneau, who has covered Michigan State for the Detroit News for nine years, “because during the game when it happened, somebody said, ‘Hey, apparently people are up in arms about this,’ so we pulled up a video. I’m sitting on press row, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to see something outrageous.’ We saw the video and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s nothing. We see that all the time.’ So during the game I wasn’t even aware that it had become [a thing] with people posting it, so afterward you start to see what people are putting out there, and see some of the headlines about ‘had to be restrained,’ and, ‘Izzo out of control.’
“For someone who’s been around him, you know, almost a decade now, it was surprising to me to say the least. What we saw was something we see all the time, and it has never been limited to one player, or freshmen, or anything. I mean, you name the player that’s come through this program, even the ones you can think of, Draymond Green, or Denzel Valentine, they’ve all dealt with this. This is how he’s always coached, so to me it felt like, Why did this just get picked up today, when it could have been last week at the Big Ten tournament, the week before against Michigan?”
In the range of defensible positions — which probably do not include Izzo citing the discussion itself as “ridiculous” — Michigan State players present and past often take the one least scrutinized: They say they want such rants.
“If you don’t have a coach on you telling you what you did wrong, that you’re accountable, then they don’t care about you,” said Kyle Ahrens, the 6-foot-5 junior recovering from a horrid injury suffered in the Big Ten title game last Sunday. “That’s how I look at it, you know? That’s why you come here. You want to get coached. That’s what you expected when you signed up to come here.”
Ahrens said the rants seem to produce adrenaline. He said he got a stormy one at halftime of the Ohio State game in East Lansing this year, and that he believed it helped. Then: “He’ll tell us after the game, ‘I challenged you. You’ve owned up to it. You’ve accomplished it,’ ” Ahrens said.
Winston, a junior, referred to an adaptation that begins, then hastens, from freshman year. “There might be a lot of people have tried it and it doesn’t work for them,” he said, “but you know, Coach Izzo, like I say, you can just see in his players, you can see in how he wins games, you can see in how hard his players play for him, you know, he’s mastered that.
“And there’s really a lot off the court, you know what I’m saying? Once you’ve established that relationship off the court, where you know he genuinely cares for you, and your well-being, your family, all types of stuff like that. You just realize he wants the best for you.”
Izzo called the occasion with Henry “a 10-second sound bite in a two-year relationship.” Green of the Golden State Warriors (Michigan State, 2008-12) gave a three-tweet interpretation of the timeout and concluded, “So, Young Fella keep standing up for yourself and don’t back down. And Iz keep leading the program!” When an NBA analyst tweeted he would be “happy when this type of coaching finally goes extinct,” Miles Bridges of the Charlotte Hornets (Michigan State 2016-18), replied, “Stop being soft.”
“Maybe, yeah, it’s the NCAA tournament, when people are watching, and they might think, ‘Whoa, I haven’t seen this before,’ ” Charboneau said. “And again, to me it wasn’t a comment on whether you believe — people may believe that’s the wrong way to coach. And that’s perfectly fine. I was just surprised why it became, suddenly, a thing, today. And then of course you talk to the players afterward, and the players, in particular Henry: ‘Yeah, I’m supposed to go out and respond and that’s what I did.’ So the whole thing, I thought, took on kind of a strange life of its own.”
Another kind of life will extend for decades to come, sure to resurface whenever this and other Michigan State teams reunite and do impressions. “I don’t think anybody will ever forget our coach’s voice,” Goins said.