Watching Michigan State’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Bradley on television in his Indianapolis home, Mark James had an interesting perspective when Spartans coach Tom Izzo erupted at freshman Aaron Henry during a timeout early in the second half.
It was not so much “been there, done that” for the longtime high school basketball coach who had coached Henry for his entire career at Ben Davis High. And it was not what Izzo was doing — yelling and jabbing a finger in Henry’s face before star senior guard Cassius Winston intervened.
It was what his former star, whom Izzo accused of not playing hard against the 15th-seed Braves, had done.
“I thought Izzo was right because Aaron wouldn’t shut up,” James said in a telephone interview Saturday. “When kids act that way, they’re supposed to be quiet. He was still wanting to talk and he knows better than that, so he got nailed for it. That’s part of it. I hate it when guys say, ‘My bad and put their hands up.’ ”
More than a week later, the controversy surrounding Izzo and Henry has quieted as the Spartans, seeded second in the East Region, have reached an Elite Eight showdown with top-seeded Duke on Sunday at Capital One Arena. The winner advances to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
But Henry — a former three-star prospect who was overlooked for most of his high school career as well as his first college season until Izzo’s outburst — is finding himself in a much different spotlight after his breakthrough performance Friday night in Michigan State’s 80-63 win over third-seeded LSU.
Nearly from the start, when Henry hit his first two shots and scored the Spartans’ first five points in an 8-0 run to open the game, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound swingman suddenly became Michigan State’s most versatile player. He would finish the game with career highs of 20 points, six assists and 38 minutes, while also pulling down eight rebounds.
“It was one of those nights when I thought the basket was huge,” said Henry, who made nine of his 14 shots, including two of four 3-pointers. “I’m glad that it was that way tonight. Just my teammates looking out for me and getting me the ball in certain positions. And Coach putting me in great spots to score. It was all key tonight. It wasn’t just on me.”
It’s logical to wonder how much of an effect Izzo’s verbal attack had on a player who wasn’t much of a factor until junior Joshua Langford was lost for the season with an ankle injury in late December.
Henry seemed a bit shaken after the incident, making four subsequent turnovers and finishing with eight points, three rebounds and five turnovers in Michigan State’s 76-65 win over Bradley. But two days later, Henry had nine points on 4-for-5 shooting, along with nine rebounds and three assists in a 70-50 win over Big Ten rival Minnesota.
Asked Friday night what Henry’s performance against LSU said about the freshman, considering what he had been through, Izzo prefaced his remarks by saying he wasn’t going to comment “about a five-second situation” and called the line of questioning “almost ridiculous.”
Adding that “all players that want to be great need to be pushed,” Izzo said of Henry: “I’m really proud of him. I really am. I’ve always been proud of him. He’d be the first to tell you that he needs to be pushed. … I appreciate the fact that instead of moping like everyone else in the world, he went to work. And that’s why he’s going to be a great player. A great player.”
In the team’s dressing room Saturday, Henry laughed when hearing the comments made by his high school coach. Though Henry said Friday that his transition to Izzo’s abrasive style took time to get used to — “It’s a little confusing when he talks to you the way he does” — having spent four years with James helped.
“It was easy to respond to that when [Izzo] does that. Most kids haven’t had that; they’d respond in a negative way,” Henry said, sitting by his locker. “When you see someone who truly cares for you like my high school coach did and now in college, [Izzo] cares the same way, it’s unbelievable and I’m 100 percent blessed to be coached the the way those two did.”
James has won close to 600 games in 37 seasons coaching high school basketball in Indianapolis, and said that he told Henry as a freshman to pick his dream schools. Michigan State was high on the list, but it took the fact that his Amateur Athletic Union team was sponsored by former Spartans star and current Denver Nuggets wing Gary Harris to get Izzo interested.
“He was one of those guys that worked hard in the weight room, worked hard on his game, got better every year,” James said. “He was sort of a late comer. A lot of colleges didn’t come on him hard until the summer between his junior and senior year. … His big thing is that he had to improve physically.”
James wasn’t surprised to see Henry get his career high in assists Friday night.
"He was always an unselfish player,” James said. “He was a team guy and it made it easier when your best player is that way with everyone else. In the semis when we won the state [title in 2017], he had the ball and he saw another kid wide open for a 3 at the buzzer. We ended up winning. That’s the way he plays now.”
A couple of those assists went to his roommate, fellow freshman Gabe Brown, who finished with a career-high 15 points. It was only the third game in double figures for Henry and the second for Brown. It helped counter off nights for seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid, who each scored just six points and combined to shoot 4-for-16.
“Our freshmen really came through,” Izzo said.
Sitting a few lockers down from Henry on Friday, Brown said it was nice to see his close friend get some positive attention.
“Just through the course of our freshman year, he’s been through a lot,” Brown said. “He’s been pushed hard. Just things have hit him very hard. His father’s been on him. Everybody’s been on him. To go out and have a night like this, I know he feels great.”
Henry was asked Friday about what kind of “exchange” he had with Izzo after the game against LSU.
“It wasn’t an exchange. We’re probably going to talk later,” Henry said. “If he ought to keep cussing me out like that, I’m all for it. I’ll be ‘Yessir, all right, I’ve got you.’ He can stay on me. He can say whatever he wants. He’s a Hall of Famer and I just want to be in the position he’s in.”