By John Fanta

Michigan State looked overwhelmed early on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t because of the Cameron Crazies in the stands. 

Just five minutes into the Top-10 Champions Classic showdown between the Spartans and Duke, the Blue Devils had landed the opening blows at home, jumping out to a 13-3 advantage. In these moments of adversity, the Spartans had previously relied upon all-time great Cassius Winston, who graduated last spring. But Winston is gone now. 

This was a telling early moment – and opportunity – for the Spartans to punch back or endure through the same, painful refrain Tom Izzo’s program has mostly gone through against Duke in his tenure. 

Aaron Henry made the most of it. 

Playing a team-high 35 minutes for the Spartans and spending time in the point guard slot Tuesday night, Henry scored 14 points to go with five assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks. He spearheaded the 13-4 burst by Michigan State to close the half and enter the locker room with a 37-33 advantage, a lead Sparty would hang on to for the 75-69 victory over the Blue Devils. 

“I just asked my guys and the coaching staff just to keep our composure,” said Henry of the slow start. “Everybody’s in a fight, you know. If you get the first couple of times, you gotta know how to respond. Those are where the champions stand. All players on all teams get hit, but it’s how you respond and how you sustain yourself in the fight, and I felt like we did a good job of that.” 

For Henry, the 21-year-old junior who stands at 6-foot-6, he tested the NBA Draft waters before ultimately coming back to East Lansing for his third season with the Spartans. He found the benefit of returning, and evolving, on Tuesday. His head coach, Tom Izzo, opened up about his relationship with Henry and his decision to return to Michigan State. Izzo has notably challenged Henry throughout his career. 

“We rode him like a horse. He’s learning more every day, and I think there’s getting to be an enormous trust,” said Izzo. “It’s funny, I watch different programs. I watch different people go at people. I think it’s because it’s at Michigan State, you know, everybody looks like it (coming back to school) is so bad. It’s not that bad guys. It’s what you do. You know, every one of you that has kids do the same thing. If they don’t do their job, you tell them. If they don’t do it again, you tell them in a different way. I’ve never had a problem with Aaron (Henry). My only problem with Aaron is I think he has to be more consistent, to go harder more consistently in a longer period of time. You know, his dad and I have been on the same page. Believe it or not, Aaron and I have been on the same page.”

“Hey, he (Henry) could have left (for the NBA). He didn’t leave,” Izzo added. “He’s growing up so much. He’s been ten times better, and you know what the saddest part of that is? This is normal. This is what normal is. We’re in a new normal now. And the new normal is you better be out of here by the time you’re a sophomore or else you’re a dog. You aren’t going to be a dog, and he’s going to be a good pro someday. He’s learning that he’s got more things that he’s got to do, and he’s gotta get better at more things. And he’s going to get better. He works at it now. And when we talk about things, he’s just right on the money with it.” 

Henry, who charged Michigan State to its first win in 10 regular season matchups against Duke in the Izzo era, echoed his head coach’s words on the bond the two have developed. 

“I felt like we were in tune a whole bunch. He was in tune with me. I was in tune with him,” said Henry. “Even his vision on the court and what he sees is not the same as ours. That respect that he has for us and what we see and how it returns to him, I felt like I was his voice out there and that was the most comfortable part for me. I can be an extension of him on the court, and it really gave our team some direction and some other plays. He holds me accountable to the highest standard.” 

Beyond Henry’s leadership, Izzo was pleased with the Spartans’ defense, which settled in and forced Duke into perimeter shots. The Blue Devils struggled at 5-for-23 from beyond the arc, shooting 20-for-62 total from the field as well. 

For the Spartans to be at their best, they need Rocket Watts to be going with Henry, and the sophomore led the way in the scoring column with 20 points. Izzo added that Watts’ defense was critical in the surge to close the opening half. 

It’s only December 1, and the season is just six days old, but Michigan State flexed their experience in responding at Duke, and the leadership question of who would emerge for the Spartans in the post-Winston era was answered in resounding fashion by Henry. That’s just part of the identity of the Spartans program.

“Everybody that comes here understands that type of background to where they know how to respond to things,” Henry added. “I’m really, really, really proud of our group and how we responded.” 

“We see the team that we could be. I hope that we can sustain consistency throughout the season with that.” 

If Henry’s playing, and leading, like he did on Tuesday, the Spartans will be more than consistent. They could find themselves in Indianapolis for a Final Four in the spring.