Coach Tom Izzo saw improved play across the board from Michigan State's upperclassmen Saturday in a second-half comeback at Ohio State. The win was the Spartans' eighth in a row and kept them undefeated and at the top of the Big Ten men's basketball standings.
It came after a gut check of a halftime when Izzo said he was direct with his leaders, particularly Cassius Winston. It worked, and Izzo credited the relationship his staff has built with his players for helping to secure a road win.
“I’m trusting my team and they’re trusting me a little bit more,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
It’s the kind of situation that can come after more than two decades of success for a program. It’s also a blueprint or sorts for where Ohio State needs to continue to grow as it heads to New Jersey on Wednesday night to face Rutgers, a historically inept Big Ten team that nonetheless plays a physical style in what can be a boisterous arena.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
But as Izzo pointed out, trust is a two-way street. So as second-year coach Chris Holtmann began the process of breaking down where the Buckeyes faltered down the stretch against the Spartans, he didn’t exclude himself from the critique.
“I told them again (Monday), I wish I would’ve done a better job for you late,” he said Tuesday. “They need to hear that from me. If we have a good enough and healthy enough relationship, they’ll hear honesty in terms of critiques and challenges I’m going to throw their way. Good players want to be coached. If they don’t want to be coached in an honest way, this probably isn’t the right place for them.”
It’s not a guarantee for success, but it is one part of the process that will be necessary for the Buckeyes to remain in the Big Ten race. In Rutgers, they will face a team that brings significant size and length but lacks shooters and natural scoring ability. Games at the Rutgers Athletic Center often resemble rock fights as much as basketball games, and the physical nature of the Scarlet Knights compares favorably with the Spartans.
If things get ugly — and they might — it’s vital to have trust in teammates.
“It’s very important because whether you’re up or down, every game you’re going to go through ups and downs, you’re going to go through adversity,” said freshman guard Luther Muhammad, a New Jersey native. “When you’re going through that, you’ve got to stay together. You can’t get distant from each other. You’ve got to encourage each other and stay as one, stay as a unit.”
That’s why moments like Holtmann’s apology of sorts to his players carry extra weight.
“That’s important, because that just shows collectively everybody’s taking responsibility,” sophomore forward Kyle Young said. “I know he always makes it a big emphasis, on good teams don’t point fingers. If you’re down, if you’re winning, it’s going to be as a team. That’s super important for us and building trust every day. Staying close together is important.”