Aaron Henry and his classmates arrived to play Michigan State basketball just in time to enjoy a magical run to the Final Four.
But on the road to Minneapolis came a stop in Des Moines, Iowa. There, a brief confrontation on the bench between the freshman and coach Tom Izzo during a win over Bradley became the buzz of the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that season Henry caught Izzo’s wrath, but it was the moment he became acutely aware of how bright the spotlight can be when chasing a national title.
And it shaped the swingman’s primary goals in bypassing the NBA draft to return to the Spartans this winter.
“Winning games, winning a championship,” said Henry, now a junior. “Realizing that anything that I want to do personally won’t be done unless I do that.”
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Instead of being just a role player or happy to see the court, Henry — along with Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham Jr. — are now needed to provide much more.
Joshua Langford is the Spartans’ only senior and coming off an injury. Izzo’s junior class, which now includes impact transfer Joey Hauser and redshirt Jack Hoiberg, will be the nucleus of MSU’s chase of a fourth straight regular-season Big Ten title and another Final Four. Or more.
“I’m hoping that my team grows a little bit when they don’t have me there,” said Izzo, who has been out of practice in isolation after being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Nov. 9. “It really is, I think, a good trial run for them to see how they adjust, how the juniors and seniors bring along the freshmen and sophomores. And hopefully, that’ll make us stronger when I get back.”
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The juniors also must show a lot of growth right away, particularly with the departures of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. The two NBA draftees led MSU in scoring in all but five games last season, totaling nearly 42% of the team’s points as the Spartans went 22-9 before the season was ended due to the pandemic.
Everything in MSU’s offense flowed with and around the Winston-Tillman combo, with both being tremendous passers as well as scorers. They allowed others to shine as MSU ranked second in the country in assists per game.
Winston and Tillman helped MSU’s defense finish fourth nationally in field-goal defense and ninth in rebounds per game. The pair combined for 73 of the team’s 159 steals, and the 6-foot-8 Tillman’s 65 blocks helped him earn Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.
In other words, it’s a lot of production to replace.
The biggest leap needs to be taken by Henry, who pulled his name out of the NBA draft after two years of incremental development. His defense and ability to move the ball have been strong, but Izzo wants his 6-6 swingman more aggressive in looking to score after averaging 10.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists a year ago.
Izzo said he has seen a different Henry since he was named captain along with Langford and Loyer.
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“He’s leaner. He’s stronger, more athletic, way better with the basketball,” Izzo said of Henry. “So I think he made some improvements.”
Loyer, a 6-foot point guard voted captain by his teammates, hopes to fill Winston’s extremely large footprint. He is expected to share the role with sophomore Rocket Watts, the two potentially playing together at times, and Hoiberg could spell them.
“I think over the summer, it was a really big emphasis on continuing to improve my leadership ability, being that vocal voice out on the court, being someone that the guys can look to for advice, either on the court or off the court or wherever that may be,” Loyer said. “And then for me, just continue to build that confidence to build that drive to go out there and play like the player I know I can be and that I will be.”
Said Kithier, who was Loyer’s high school teammate at Clarkston: “I think Foster doesn’t get as much appreciation as he should. I think Foster — him and Joshua (are) right there as being one of the top two vocal leaders on our team.”
Brown, whose minutes and role decreased midway through last season after he got sick, is another X-factor for the Spartans. When he’s shooting and attacking the basket, he brings energy to those around him. Brown also has a light-hearted personality that he is trying to shape into a more serious tone as a leader, something he said Izzo “has been on me heavy about.”
“The last year, I feel like I’ve matured a lot,” said the 6-7 Brown, who averaged 6.8 points while shooting 34.1% from 3-point range as a sophomore. “With this COVID hitting, it gave me time to think, it gave me time to realize what I need to work on during the offseason and during the season that just hit: how to get my teammates involved, how to talk to my teammates, how to do things. And a certain manner to get my teammates to rise above what (level) they’re playing at.”
Kithier (6-8) and Bingham (6-11) enter pivotal years now that Tillman is gone. Those two will be pushed by sophomore Julius Marble and freshman Mady Sissoko, each of whom offer differing skill sets at center. And the addition of Hauser, who transferred in from Marquette after earning All-Big East freshman honors in 2018-19, brings a proven frontcourt scorer who can stretch defenses and help offset the point production Tillman provided.
“You got Joey transferring in, you’ve got Rocket being a sophomore, Josh coming back for his fifth year — everybody’s just growing,” Henry said. “I’m just on a small piece of the puzzle.”
No. 12 MSU opens the season Wednesday against Eastern Michigan. It is unclear if Izzo will be there, but the Spartans have been preparing for the challenges the pandemic presents this season. And if Izzo isn’t there to yell at Henry and his teammates, it might be the new captain doing the yelling.
“We’re gonna need each other in that gym when we’re playing teams, we’re going to have to rally around each other. And that’s all we need,” Henry said. “Not to say we don’t need friends or anything, because I love my friends, too, but they’re gonna have to be at home for a little while just watching from the sideline.
“It’s nut-cutting time.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball prepares to play EMU without Tom Izzo