NCAA Tournament Media Session
Michigan State men's basketball players Miles Bridges, Alvin Ellis III and Lourawls 'Tum Tum' Nairn Jr., along with head coach Tom Izzo addressed the media at a press conference at the BOK Center on Saturday afternoon to discuss Sunday's upcoming second round matchup with top-seeded Kansas. Below is a complete transcript of the press conference, along with select quotes from the team's open locker room session.
Miles, were you aware before you came to Michigan State of the school's reputation for winning these games as lower seeds, and what have you seen now that you've been a part of it? What's your explanation for why it happens so much under Coach Izzo?
Miles Bridges: I think we play better as the underdog. It just gives us more fuel to our fire. We play with more intensity, more energy, and we're not satisfied with anything. So that's why I think we play better.
Q.Miles, Josh Jackson said you guys have known each other since fifth or sixth grade. What do you remember about when you first met? He said he wasn't a very good player yet. Is that true?
Miles Bridges: I wasn't a very good player back then. He was. I mean, we've been friends all our life. We played with each other, played against each other. This is probably going to be one of the toughest games that we've played against each other. But yeah, I've known him all my life.
Q. Miles, can you give us a scouting report on Josh and what he does well and what you guys think you can maybe take a little advantage of?
Miles Bridges: He has a high motor. He never stops playing, plays with a lot of energy, stays on the glass. We just have to keep him off the glass. That's what gives him a lot of his hustle points. He's just a dog on the floor. That's basically what he does.
Q. Guys, you kind of got off to a slow start last night, but it seemed like out of nowhere something changed. Can you tell us a little bit about maybe what exactly it was that changed for you guys?
ALVIN ELLIS, III: You know, it started with our turnovers. They sped us up. They got us going, and they got easy transition buckets. Once we stopped turning the ball over, they didn't score that easily, and we went on a run.
TUM TUM NAIRN, JR.: Exactly what Alvin just said.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Coach Izzo's connection not only with the current team roster but former players that have come through the Michigan State program?
TUM TUM NAIRN, JR.: It's just a special thing he has with his players. He pushes them so hard to be the best you can be. And when you tell him your dreams, he wants it for you just as bad as you want it for yourself, sometimes maybe even more than you want it for yourself.
So back at school, a lot of guys come back and are always helping us out and showing us the ropes and how to do things in this program. And I think the family environment that he has created and the players have created is what makes Michigan State so special.
Q. At times you guys had four freshmen on the floor at once. I'm just curious what some of those timeouts were like and what sort of things Coach Izzo was saying to all of you as a group, and how he was trying to use that time to teach and to coach but also to get you guys through that game?
ALVIN ELLIS, III: He was just saying we gotta just keep staying solid. When we were up on the big lead, we just have to keep stepping on their necks. We couldn't let up. We had to finish out the game. We had a little trouble in the past with finishing the games, and we just had to keep stepping on their necks.
Miles Bridges: Yeah, like Alvin said, we had trouble finishing games. That just shows how mature we are now. Our freshmen aren't freshmen anymore. We just really grew up because back then I don't think we could have finished that game out but yesterday we did.
Q. Tum Tum, you've had to play against some really tough point guards recently in Derrick Walton, Jr., Nate Mason, Melo Trimble. What is different that Frank Mason brings to the table and how are you prepared to guard him?
TUM TUM NAIRN, JR.: He's a lot like those guys. I want to say he shoots it better than most of those guys. He's shooting like 50 percent from three. He's really aggressive in transition. So I just gotta stay solid on him and make him take tough shots. With a player like him, you can't really stop him. All you can do is contain him and keep him take tough shots. I'm going to have a lot of help from my teammates in guarding him.
Q. Alvin, Kansas likes to play fast. Are you going to try to slow them down or do you guys like getting in a track meet as well?
ALVIN ELLIS, III: You know, that's our game. We like the fast pace of games and we don't get tired that easily. We got a lot of depth on the floor and on our bench, and we'll be ready for that matchup.
Q. Guys, even though a lot of national people look at this as a game, a very close game, seed line suggests 1-9. Does that kind of give you a mental advantage, kind of frees you up being able to play freer and the fact that the pressure is usually on the 1 seed?
Miles Bridges: I mean, it's still a lot of pressure on us because it's win or go home. Both of the teams we have to have a sense of urgency because I'm pretty sure they don't want to go home either. So we're not free at all. It's a lot of pressure on us.
TUM TUM NAIRN, JR.: This tournament is all or nothing, man. You just gotta go out there and play this game like it's your last game because it could be. So for us we're not focusing on the seeds. We're just focusing on doing whatever we can to get a win.
Q. Speaking of former players, Coach was talking about you being embarrassed after the Minnesota game, being out-toughed and that not being acceptable. Have you heard or gotten any feedback from former players with regard to that?
ALVIN ELLIS, III: No, I haven't gotten any comments about that game.
COACH IZZO: I mean, there's no question Kansas might be the best team in the country if you look at the experience they have, the guard play which usually wins for you in a tournament, very well coached, lethal fast break.
And I think the one advantage, you know, that we've had is this will be the fourth team that was at one time or another was ranked No. 1 in the country. And I think Arizona was as high as 3, and Wisconsin just beat one of the No. 1s and we had a chance to beat them at the end of the year. So at least I think we've played -- we can tell our team we've played against a lot of these teams that are ranked high.
And on any given Sunday, it's about the 40 minutes of ball that's being played. And there's no question we might have played 30 of the best minutes of basketball we played all year in that stretch. There's no question we might have played some of the worst and dumbest basketball of the year in the first 10 minutes of that game, with the turnovers and foul two seconds into the game which set a Michigan State record, maybe North American, to be honest with you (laughter).
So we can go both ways with our youth. You're talking about a very experienced team against a very young team, but one thing about youth, you win a game and there is an excitement, there's an enthusiasm. There's a new feeling. And that's helped me even -- you know, when you win a decent amount of games in this tournament, like we have over the years, it's just -- I won't say it's ho-hum, but it gets to be. There was nothing ho-hum about yesterday for me or for them, and that'll, I hope, propel us into playing well tomorrow against a good team. And should be a few Kansas fans here, I would think, and it'll be a great situation for us.
Q. Coach, you touched on it a little bit last night about Eron Harris and his importance through this run. Can you expand on that a little bit and talk about what Eron's really meant to this team, especially all the youngsters you have?
COACH IZZO: Well, Eron is the best defensive player we have, and I would like at least to be able to put him on Mason, which I don't think will happen now. But I told him right after the game, you know, you gotta have some film sessions with those guards yourself and explain some things to them. Number one, to try to keep them involved; number two, to try to use his knowledge.
Sometimes, as I always say, a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team and he can talk about things he had to deal with in guarding Trimble and guarding this guy and that guy. And I think he had to guard him some last year when we played him. So that's what we're trying to use Eron as, keep him involved. He's been unbelievable. He could have just hung his head. He's been with us every meeting, everything that's happened. Really appreciate what he's given this team.
Q. Coach, what's your explanation for the success you guys have had as an underdog in the lower seed in the NCAA tournament, and over the years when did it become something that maybe you embraced or even talked about with the kids?
COACH IZZO: Yeah, personally I don't like it. Somebody told me that yesterday and said, you know what, you tied somebody's record or broke somebody's record. I said, For what?
And they said, Well, NCAA wins.
And I said, Are you kidding me?
And then they explained to me that as a worst seed, we upset -- that means we're a bad seed a lot of times. So I don't feel as good about that as maybe I should.
But I do think that, you know, when I had the Flintstones and that group of guys back in '97, '98, that started this whole thing. It was just a bunch of blue-collar tough guys that nobody gave a chance to win a lot of ways, and we just kind of earned our way. And that was the culture that we developed. And thank God those guys are still part of that culture because they all come back, they all text and call these guys. And they inform Bridges on what it's supposed to be like. If you're a Flintstone, you better be doing this, this and this. And I think that's helped.
I really think it's the culture we've developed that we're -- and the schedule we play, I don't think we're afraid of anybody because we've already played some of those teams. Doesn't mean we'll go beat anybody, but it means that you can knock that off the list. You know, it's not like some teams will say, well, we've never played that kind of schedule, we've never played those kind of teams. We've played them all. So maybe it's the lack of fear of that that's given us some success over the years.
Q. Coach, I asked Coach Self the same question, but can you talk a little bit about the biggest coaching mentor that you've had in your career and how humbling is it when you see your own assistant coaches kind of evolve into your coaching tree?
COACH IZZO: It's awesome. The best thing I get to happen to me, when anybody in your program gets to kind of live his dream. Because that's what I tell my guys every day coming from Iron Mountain, Michigan, and being the coach at Michigan State and winning National Championship and some of the things that have happened to me. That's more than my dream. I live my dream. How many people get to live it? And I think when you watch a coach or player move on, they're getting to live their dream.
And my biggest mentor was Jud Heathcote by far. You know, my father. But as a coach, it was Jud. Now, I'm a little different because I grew up in that area where there's 11 months of winter, one month of poor sledding up in the UP. So I grew up 95 miles from Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. I've read every book that Vince ever put out. So I kind of had that football -- I grew up idolizing a lot more of those football guys than I did even basketball guys. And so I've had a lot of guys that have influenced my life.
But Jud Heathcote, not only did he give me the chance, but he kind of -- it was the perfect guy for me, you know. I mean, where I'm from, you just kind of work when you're young and that's what you do and that's kind of the same way Jud was. I said he'd never ask me to do anything he wouldn't do himself. And he gave me one piece of advice for all of you for the media that I've kind of used, and I think it's been great for me. And when I used to ask him why he'd treat you guys so nice, when there was times they wanted to fire him, and there was sometimes they'd be writing articles, he gave me that piece of advice that I remember, everybody's got a job to do and everybody's got a boss to answer to; everybody's got a family to feed.
I agree with that most of the time. Once in a while I don't. But for the most part, I think that's been good advice.
Q. You mentioned Cassius was improved yesterday. This is a whole different animal a little bit in Frank Mason. What do you tell him before this one? Is this a real test of his improvement and the gap help defense and all the stuff that's around him trusting that and everything working?
COACH IZZO: I called some coaches last night that played against Frank Mason that the common denominator of advice was remember, now, you're not going to stop him. Don't try to game plan to stop him because it's not going to happen. You know, you hope to somewhat contain him and make sure he doesn't let everybody else get better because of what he can do in his penetration and shooting. And just Byron Nelson, a great story in that kid, where he came from and where he started out, where he almost went to school and where he is now.
If I wasn't playing against him, I'd be his biggest fan. When I'm done playing against him, I'll still be his biggest fan. But yeah, we're not going to guard him with one guy. I'm thinking of going untraditional, playing a box and one, putting a box on Frank and the one on the other four guys. He's got that big of an impact on the game.
And they've got other good players. Josh Jackson, kid we recruited hard has just gotten better and better and better. I know how good he is. But Mason is the straw that stirs the drink. He's the guy that seems like every big shot he's involved in. What he's shooting, what he's doing is phenomenal. I mean, if he isn't -- you know, we're prejudiced that we've got Swanigan in our league who's a Player of the Year candidate, but I could see either one of those two guys getting it and I think it would be a good choice.
Q. Just wondering what your initial reaction was when you saw the potential matchup with Bill Self and Kansas on Selection Sunday?
COACH IZZO: You know, it wasn't that big -- when I first saw it, it wasn't that big because I was just trying to survive Miami. And I don't think I realized who we were playing until after we won. And I'm saying that a little bit fooling around.
But Bill and I have been through a lot. He was at Illinois. We've played each other in the NCAA tournament. We've played in the Tournament of Champions more than a couple times. I think there's great respect. We've been friends for a long time. When he was here at Tulsa, we played them over in Maui in a hell of a game and his team was good. I think that was the year his team went to the Sweet 16. Might have been the year we won it. So it's been a long history. Great respect for what he's done.
It's not Allen Fieldhouse, but it's probably Allen Fieldhouse, what is it, east, west, north. I flunked geography. South. Somewhere. And not that far from there. But you know, I do think they're one of the best teams in the country and they've proven that. I saw him at the first game of the year when we played against Arizona out in Hawaii, and they haven't lost many games since then.
Q. Along the lines of playing Kansas, how would you describe the similarities and the differences in style between you and Coach Self?
COACH IZZO: Well, he has -- this is not a traditional Bill Self team either, in my humble opinion. He's always had the two bigs inside and playing a lot of high to low, you know, that two-man game that he's so well known for, and this has been just a race-horse team that has four perimeter guys that can run and do things not as deep as some of his teams.
Lucas is a load in there. It's not that he's scoring a million points, but he's got his body on somebody every single time and he's big and he's gained a lot of weight since the last time, a lot of strength. He's done a nice job with himself.
As I said, you know, I have a great appreciation for those two guards, and I think Josh Jackson was one of the more coveted recruits, if not one of two most coveted recruits, in the country.
So I think it's a different Bill Self team than he's had. I think the fast break is as good as I've ever seen. But it's not quite the pounded inside which they'll probably do tomorrow especially if our center finds a way to get a foul in the first two seconds again (laughter).
I'm thinking about not starting him, for a little bit of breaking news, just to keep him out of that. I think Bill has done a great job. It's amazing, amazing that they've won, what, 12, 13 Big 12 championships in a row.
That is what all coaches aspire to do is not win big games, but have consistency, and I don't know of anybody who's been more consistent than Bill.
Q. Coach, last night, for those of us that has not seen your team, you looked like a No. 1 seed. I know you're young, but what are some of the things that have arisen in the past season that has caused you problems with your youth?
COACH IZZO: Which part of us looked like that No. 1? The first ten minutes or -- (laughter).
You know, we have made no -- listen, I got a talented bunch of freshmen. What we're lacking in some of these -- Kentucky has a bunch of freshmen. They have some seniors that play. Duke's got a bunch of guys that play, even though they're playing their freshmen. This is new territory for me, too.
But I love my freshmen. I love my guys. They've been unbelievable this year, with the things we've put them through with the travel and the schedule and the losing and the pressure of not making the tournament and all the things. But they have gotten better the last ten games. We are getting better, but getting better, we got some deficiencies, although, you know, Kansas is not as deep as they've normally been.
I mean, that's what makes the job he's done so incredible because they can't afford to get anybody in foul trouble either, you know.
So I don't know, you know, we're a good team that -- I'm anxious to see how we respond to having some success, and I say that, you know, we beat Wisconsin late in the year. We were playing better then. They just beat Villanova. And but last night the biggest thing we did, I mean, we didn't get punched in the nose. It was we got knocked out in those first eight minutes. When you're down 17 to 5 with all those young guys, I mean, you could lose it. And when they came back, that was a giant step, and even though we don't have the experience, now we have some enthusiasm that young guys have that older guys, you know. It's just another day, do your job, get it done. These guys I think are excited, you know. How far that'll carry us, I'm as anxious to see as maybe a lot of our fans are.
Q. Do you have any stories from your days recruiting Josh Jackson? What do you remember? How good was your sales pitch? Obviously Bill's might have been a little bit better, but what were some of your better lines and experiences with him?
COACH IZZO: I just got on my hands and knees and begged him. That's what I did, and that wasn't as good as Bill's. But hey, you know what, I love Josh Jackson. He's a great kid. Recruited him since like ninth or tenth grade. Even though he went to prep school out in California, you know, I think he has what all of us appreciate, you know. You can talk about his ability to put the ball on the floor and run the lane and this and that, I think he plays as hard as any player I've seen in a lot of years.
And when star players, I mean I think I have a special guy in Miles Bridges. When star players play that hard instead of the just go through the motions, that sometimes you see makes it special.
Was it sad and disappointing? It was, because I think it was -- I think it was a close fight to the finish. But talked to Josh after it, unlike some guys, he had the courage and the respect to call and tell me. A lot of kids don't do that. I'll always be a Josh Jackson fan, except for tomorrow night for 40 minutes. You know, other than that -- and he's pretty good friends with a lot of our guys that he played with. So it's all good, you know what you hope for in competition is to hate your enemy but respect them, and that's kind of the way it's gotta be, like the respect I have for Bill and his program. But Josh in particular since I was close to him is off the charts, but I think he has some of that similar respect for some of my players, too.
#14 ERON HARRIS, SENIOR GUARD
On his injury...
"Yeah, it was dislocated. I felt it as soon as I hit the ground that it was dislocated. It's a torn ACL, partial tear over here, but I'm going to heal quick. I've made such great improvements in rehab, and the surgery was promising because we have great trainers and great doctors."
On tomorrow's game against Kansas...
"I'm feeling great about tomorrow. We got all the tools we need. We just got to keep these guys hungry at all times. Keep them humble. We're not worried about anybody in our path. We want to get to the same place everyone else wants to get to. It's going to be who wants it the most (who wins). We just have to keep in mind how important this is."
#0 Kyle Ahrens, SOPHOMORE GUARD/FORWARD
On Eron's role as a leader...
"Yeah he has taken on a role as a very vocal leader. He's basically like a coach for us. He watches extra film, he's letting us know extra information on everyone, so he's doing a great job at what he's doing. Especially as his roommate, I mean, every night he's letting us know what we need to do. Like I said, he's being a great leader to us."
On tomorrow's game against Kansas...
"We feel great, ready to go, ready to practice, ready to get things rolling"
#20 Matt McQuaid, SOPHOMORE GUARD
On what makes Kansas a dangerous team...
"They have a lot of quick guards that are good in transition and they can shoot really good, so it's definitely going to be a challenge. They also crash the boards, every one of them. Like I said, transition, rebounding, those are going to be key things from their guards."
On if he is playing his best basketball of the year...
"Yeah, I feel like I'm playing good right now. I just need to continue to stay aggressive and keep trying to get to the rim and free throw line and taking my shots and playing what the defense gives me."
On his performance in last night's game (7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists)...
"I was just being aggressive and trying to take what the defense gave me. My teammates made some great cuts and made some great catches and that made it easy, so I give credits to my teammates, too."
On how Coach Izzo prepares his team in tournament situations...
"I think it's the little things we do. We do a lot of mental stuff. Of course we practice, but the walk-throughs, the film and all that, I think that plays a big factor into it."
On facing another nationally recognized program in the Round of 32 and if this a "Why you come to Michigan State moment"...
"Yeah, I'd say that. Any tournament game is a big game. This one is going to be looked at as a bigger one, just because it's Kanas-Michigan State. We're just going to treat it like we do every round. We're going to prepare a lot and get ready for it."
#5 Cassius Winston, FRESHMAN GUARD
On his relationship with Kansas' Josh Jackson...
"Yeah, we met in the second grade. We were young, we played AAU. We grew up together, played together all the way until like seventh or eighth grade. I watched him grow. He watched me grow. It's been great."
More on what tomorrow will be like facing Josh Jackson...
"That's my brother, and I wish the best for him in every aspect of the game in the future. I want to see him go far, that's just how it is. But tomorrow we're playing against each other and it's us against them, so we're going to do the best for us to win the game and they're going to do the best for them to win."
On what it's like playing a big-name opponent early in the tournament...
"Like I said before, it's great. In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best, that's just how it is. You don't want to shy away from anybody, you don't want to step down from any challenge. You want to play as many teams as possible, so when you get on top, it makes it that much sweeter that you didn't shy away form anybody. They're a great team, they have great players and we're ready for that challenge."
On getting used to the team's defensive system throughout his freshman season...
"The gap defense takes a lot of pressure of one-on-one defense. In this game, at this level, it's hard to check anyone one-on-one, it's one of those things that's very difficult. You know you got your help there, you can press up into him, all types of things like that, it makes it easier on the defensive end. We're going to be in our gaps and we're going to be there to help our teammates out."