Freshmen Henry, Brown carry Michigan State past LSU, into Elite Eight

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The first weekend of the NCAA tournament was dominated by a discussion surrounding one of Tom Izzo’s freshman at Michigan State.

Aaron Henry.

Playing in his first career NCAA tournament game, the 6-foot-6 Henry struggled. Badly. He made mistakes that players are not allowed to make in Izzo’s program, and Izzo let him know about it in an outburst that was captured by the Turner television cameras.

Suddenly, this was everywhere, and everyone seemed to have an opinion. Either Izzo was showing just how much he loved his players by pushing them as far as they are capable of going in a competitive setting, or he was abusing the authority that was afforded him in a relationship that should be more courteous and less confrontational.

But that doesn’t really matter at this point.

And I don’t even know if it’s fair to say “it worked” after what happened on Friday night, but I will say this and it is very much a fact: Aaron Henry is now a national name for more than just being the kid Izzo laid into on national television.

Henry finished with a career-high 20 points to go along with eight boards and six assists on Friday night in the Sweet 16. He had 13 points, seven boards and four assists — which would have been the best game of his freshman season — in the first half, as the Spartans jumped out to a 40-28 lead on LSU, cruising to an 80-63 win to get back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2015.

“It was one of those nights where I thought the basket was huge,” Henry said after the game. “I’m glad that it was that way tonight.”

Henry wasn’t the only freshman that went nuts for Michigan State on Friday night. Gabe Brown came off the bench to chip in with 15 points — a career-high of his own — while knocking down four threes after coming into the game having made just 12 threes all season long.

Cassius Winston chipped in with 17 points and eight assists and the Spartans shot 13-for-32 from three, but the tone of this game was set in the first half. The Spartans grabbed 10 offensive rebounds on 18 missed shots and turned that into 12 second-chance points. It was, in a sense, a quintessential Michigan State performance, one that I’m not sure many people expected to see based on the size and ability of LSU’s big men.

That’s actually where the big concern moving forward is for the Spartans, because they may have lost Nick Ward to injury again. He took a nasty fall and had to leave the game to get x-rays on his left hand. He said after the game that it is just a bruise and that he expects to be ready to go for Sunday, but it is worth noting that this injury occurred on the same hand that Ward fractured last month, an injury that forced him to miss more than three weeks of game time.

The Spartans will face the winner of Duke-Virgina Tech.

All that said, the story of this game was the freshmen.

Michigan State is not a deep team these days. They lost Kyle Ahrens to an ankle injury. They lost Josh Langford to a foot injury. They played just seven guys before garbage time on Friday, and one of them is Brown, who averaged 7.6 minutes and 2.0 points heading into this game.

But the thing about those freshmen — Brown and Henry — is that they both certainly have the talent to one day be high-level starters for the Spartans, and they also happen to provide the one thing that Michigan State desperately lacks this season: Athleticism.

I’m going to do my best to avoid overreacting to one game too much, but the fact that Brown and Henry played as well as they did in this moment really does matter as the Spartans move forward in a tournament where the teams they play are only going to get better.