Aaron Henry may drag Michigan State basketball into NCAA tournament

Aaron Henry becoming a Spartan great, just may drag Michigan State into NCAA tournament

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press

Let’s begin with the fifth-year senior, though it feels like Joshua Langford has been on Michigan State’s campus even longer than that.  

That he missed most of two seasons with complicated foot injuries, and that he arrived in East Lansing with a class that already is gone blurs the time line.  

Though there was nothing fuzzy about Langford’s performance Tuesday night at the Breslin Center, where he helped lead — and I mean lead — the Spartans to their biggest win of the season in knocking off Illinois, 81-72. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard channeled Tom Izzo’s rugged shooting guards of yore, grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. 

He also scored 13 points, several of them timely, and generally brought the kind of bounce to the court he hasn’t shown — for good reason — since he was a junior.  

“How can Josh get 16 rebounds?” Izzo asked, marveling at Langford’s effort. “That’s Charlie Bell. … That’s Jason Richardson.” 

Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) high-fives coach Tom Izzo after scoring a basket to force Illinois into calling timeout during the first half at Breslin Center in East Lansing, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Few coaches love to reference former players like Izzo, especially players that helped put Izzo on the map. And when a player overcomes what Langford overcomes, and persists as Langford has persisted, well, Izzo is likely to get downright emotional. He nearly did, saying he could shed a tear — or several — when he thinks about the serene and thoughtful leader of this team, who is feeling as well and as spry as he has in years. 

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On any other night, we’d keep going with Langford in this space. It’s a great story. He’s a great story. MSU’s last two wins — and the opportunity it has before it — is a great story

But he isn’t the story yet.  

Aaron Henry is. And it’s time to recognize what the junior forward is doing.  

Henry thought about turning pro last summer. He thought for a while, too, choosing to return to MSU right before the deadline to declare for the NBA draft.  

He wanted to improve his ball skills and his shooting and his decision-making and his leadership. He wanted to keep learning under Izzo, and to show NBA general managers and scouts that he was more than a defender.  

He spent his offseason working on improving these areas, and he did, and it was obvious the minute the season started. Then the losing started. And the stretches of passive play returned. And by a week ago Sunday, Henry was sitting on the bench for nearly 8 minutes in the first half watching his team get run over by Iowa. 

Izzo thought his star needed a breather, and maybe a motivational reminder that he wasn’t playing his best. He returned that game and played better. But it was too late. 

In the two games since — a win at Indiana on Saturday followed by the win over Illinois Tuesday — Henry has played 79 minutes out of 80. He’s been the best player on the court in both games.  

It hasn’t been close. 

Can he keep this pace up? 

“I don’t get tired,’ he said, after scoring 20 points, grabbing six rebounds, dishing five assists, blocking two shots and collecting two steals. “I won’t get tired. I don’t have time to get tired.” 

No, he doesn’t.  

Because his Spartans have a chance at something rare: to rewrite their story this late in the season, after most everyone considered them done — me included. Ohio State is up Thursday. Maryland awaits Sunday. Indiana and Michigan will be waiting after that — MSU plays U-M twice.  

Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) makes a layup against Illinois guard Trent Frazier (1) during the second half at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Find a few more wins against those teams and the NCAA tournament is possible. Get to the tournament and anything is possible, including the stories that will detail the turnaround, which Henry is leading.  

He deserves the ink, so to speak. He has been good-to-great for most of the season, and is playing as well right now as anyone has under Izzo, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman and Draymond Green included. 

Henry isn’t just scoring; he’s getting buckets down the stretch. He isn’t just passing; he’s tilting the floor and manipulating the defense and finding his teammates when it’s best for them, as he did late Tuesday when his team was teetering and Illinois was grinding and an 18-point lead had been cut to nine with more than 3 minutes left. 

If there had been a crowd, the anxiety would’ve been noticeable. Even without one, the tension was real, and when Henry took the ball at the top of the key and surveyed the court, he could feel it was his time.  

He dribbled, looked, and waited for forward Joey Hauser to come set a screen, who then popped to the side as Henry took two defenders with him. Henry tossed it back to Hauser, who drained a 3-pointer and all but sealed the game. 

It was the biggest shot of Hauser’s season. Set up by a player who is starting to understand just how good he can be and is, frankly, sick of losing. He said as much after the Indiana game. He said something similar after the Illinois game, after arguably the most complete game of his career. 

“I’m kind of just frustrated we haven’t been playing like this all year,” he said. “But, damn, we played good tonight.” 

He was thinking about what might have been in the post-game locker room. Thinking about how good it felt, not just winning, but in the way he and the team are playing. 

“It was Spartan basketball,” he said. 

He wasn’t simply saying it, either. He was playing it. Has been playing it all along. Now that the team is winning, it is getting easier to see.  

“He is becoming a man,” said Izzo. 

The transformation may just take this team somewhere yet.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.