When you grow up wanting to be a college basketball player and you watch games between big-time programs, you hope you’ll be part of that one day.
Tuesday night was one of those games you really want to play in. You’re not nervous; you’re just anxious. They’re program games. You’re in a gym filled with 10,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs.
As a player, you want to be in those kinds of games.
I went into Tuesday without a doubt in my mind that I’d play. Whatever bumps and bruises I had going in didn’t matter.
I felt some pain at times but the competitor in me wasn’t going to let me come out of that game. It was a program game and it was back-and-forth almost the whole way. We knew it was going to be a fight for 40 minutes and we knew the atmosphere would be electric. All the adrenaline that was pumping through my body wasn’t going to let me stop or slow down.
We like to play physical basketball, and we can play a physical style. When it’s a big-time game like Tuesday, you let the players play. Those games are physical and we embrace that.
We knew Michigan State would want a physical game, too. They have a great coach in Tom Izzo, and he coaches them hard for all 40 minutes. When things come together like that, it makes for a great basketball game.
I’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of great places – Madison Square Garden comes to mind – but there’s no place I’d rather play a big-time game than Cameron. Cameron is home for me right now, and there’s really no place like home – especially when home is a gym where people are packed in so tight in the student section that they have to stand diagonally.
Our crowd was in mid-season form on Tuesday night. With fans, you usually see an increase in intensity as the season goes on and rivalry games come around, but they were definitely there against Michigan State.
The crowd was part of the runs we made in the second half of that game. It starts with Matt making a play on defense or Frank driving to rim and then Cameron just erupts. Cameron knows good basketball. Our fans see a defensive stop, a guy working his tail off or a guy taking over the game and they get excited. They lift us up and give us energy.
Coach K is intense, but in those environments, his intensity is always pointed in one direction. He wants to win above all else, and he wants to put us in positions to be successful.
In big-time games, he’s constantly instilling confidence in us. On Tuesday, he was telling Luke and me that we were passing up too many shots even though we shot the ball around 20 times each. When we have a coach who instills confidence in us, who tells us to keep shooting when they’re not falling, it’s huge for us as players.
Coach K gives his all on every possession. He coaches the entire 40 minutes of a game. He doesn’t let us let up at all, and we don’t want to because we know he won’t.
Tuesday’s win was a very big one for us because of the two programs in the game. Michigan State is a tough team, regardless of what their record says right now. They can play with anyone in America. We knew it was going to be a fight.
We showed a lot of toughness on Tuesday. When you go through a big game like that, where it’s just a fight for 40 minutes, you become closer as a group because you have to. You’re forced to come together and fight. If we hadn’t come together as a group in that second half – making connecting plays, talking, having good huddles – we would’ve lost the game.
Games like that really fortify a team’s bond. The value of playing, and winning, that game will really show itself later in the season.
It was a program game and a program win. The kind of game you grow up dreaming of playing.