EAST LANSING — As final exams ended late last week, Tom Izzo brought his seven veteran rotation players into his office for a talk about the state of Michigan State.
As his players discussed team leadership and how to improve it, point guard Cassius Winston made a remark that stuck with his coach: "We've got to hold each other accountable on a daily basis."
"That was a very profound thing to say and a hard thing to do," Izzo said. "...Hard to do, especially in this day and age when everybody takes things so personally."
Accountability was a focus for Michigan State throughout a 104-83 win over Green Bay on Sunday night. Izzo said he brought it up 10 times during huddles in that game.
And he was pleased, afterward, to hear senior guard Matt McQuaid admit to some defensive lapses and thank teammate Joshua Langford for pointing them out.
Those are the type of interactions players say they want to have with one another to keep improving.
"We've got to do a better job...all the upperclassmen of keeping each other accountable," McQuaid said. "I feel like this week we've really got to focus on that to become a better team."
MSU Athletics and @PNCBank are recognizing Elizabeth Roche, Xavier Tillman and Hannah Worth as December's #PNCAchievers Student-Athlete of the Month. They are recognized for displaying well-rounded achievement in the classroom, community & competition.https://t.co/4VflEWgwAS pic.twitter.com/H3NGoMXIBO— Spartan Athletics (@MSU_Athletics) December 7, 2018
Accountability will continue to be a focus for Michigan State as it continues through a month of December that's light on games and heavy on practice. A break in the schedule, with three games in 24 days, allows the team to step back from the continually preparing for the next opponent and to focus on bigger issues.
And players hope a focus on accountability will help this team continue to improve when the scoring margin potentially gets large against lesser opponents and to help Michigan State get in the best position it can be when Big Ten play resumes on Jan. 2.
"You can't let guys slack, you can't let guys let up," Winston said. "In order to be the best team we can be, everybody has to be at their best games. We just have to expect that from everybody."
Plenty of good happened in Sunday's win over Green Bay: Nick Ward finished 12-for-13 for a career-high 28 points, running the floor well to create baskets. Cassius Winston has 16 points and 12 assists. Four other players scored in double figures. The Spartans played a strong final 10 minutes of the first half to turn a close game into a blowout, running its fast break well and shutting down on defense.
📽️📽️📽️— Michigan State Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) December 17, 2018
6⃣Dawgs in double figures
5⃣points in the final five seconds of the first half
4⃣blocked shots for @IamNickWard
3⃣double-doubles for @cassiuswinston this season
2⃣freshmen with career-highs
1⃣three pointer for @Rookiedunker #SpartanDawgs pic.twitter.com/lj27iJJDHj
But that strong play began to wane in the second half, as the Phoenix scored 48 second-half points. For a team that has placed a strong emphasis this season on finishing -- an emphasis borne out of two straight disappointing NCAA Tournament finishes -- that means there is room for improvement.
"You learn a lot about your team in big games, you learn a lot about your team in games you should win," Izzo said. "What I didn't like is we have to learn how to finish, finish games, finish practice and finish seasons."
The goal is to achieve something Izzo hopes all of his teams can achieve: becoming a team that's led more by players than by coaches. Player say they've bought into that goal.
"A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team," Winston said." In that second half, we have to do a better job of just motivating guys. It can be hard. We're not just playing against a team, we're playing against ourselves."
The Spartans hope to do plenty of improving starting next week. Michigan State will have four days of practice starting on Monday before a Friday game against Oakland. As Izzo gleefully pointed out, the fact that Michigan State doesn't have class this week means typical practice time limitations don't apply.
"We are going to practice, we are going to practice and we are going to practice," Izzo said. "We are going to get better because this team has a chance to get better."
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