MADISON, Wis. — Russell Byrd’s brief appearance in Michigan State’s win Tuesday night at Wisconsin went about as poorly as it could.
At the beginning of his only two minutes on the court, almost midway through the second half, MSU’s redshirt sophomore captain turned the ball over on an inbound pass and then, on the Spartans’ next possession, drew an offensive foul trying to drive around a defender on the perimeter.
Byrd’s first turnover led to a Wisconsin 3-pointer, though not directly. His second didn’t turn into Badgers points.
His stint at Iowa was a struggle, too — a missed wide-open 3 when the Spartans trailed by four and then a passed-up 3 that led to a tough shot by a teammate and a fast-break bucket other way.
The question posed of coach Tom Izzo by one reporter after Tuesday’s game, was essentially whether the Spartans could afford to play Byrd, whether he’d become a liability?
It was a fair question. Not a pleasant topic, because Byrd has behaved with class during what must be an incredibly difficult year for him, a prolonged slump of confidence that doesn’t seem to be improving.
Here was Izzo’s answer:
“I haven’t played him that many minutes. I feel bad for the kid. He’s almost like snake bit. He comes in and does two things right off the bat. And it’s hard.
“I told you when BJ (Branden Dawson) was starting to play with more energy, he’s playing better. Russ has been shooting very well, he’s earning that. But there’s more than just shooting well. You’ve got to feel confidence in yourself. And you can see he didn’t have that. And we’re going to keep working with Russ. Because if we ever get a guy like him who can shoot it as well as he’s starting to shoot it in practice, it’s gong to be a benefit for our team.”
It was an interesting response. I’ve thought most of this season that Byrd, if he ever hit a few shots in a row, could have an enormous impact, even if playing 10 minutes a game. Because he was once a drop-dead 25-foot shooter, the sort of player that impacts defenses and defensive spacing, and could really help a team with the sort of athletes MSU has at its disposal.
But, with each game, it looks less and less like that’ll happen this year. His net on-court impact at Iowa and Wisconsin was minus-something, and in two games where the margin for error was so small, it could have been costly.
Another story line from Tuesday night was all the talk of togetherness and leadership in the locker room. I usually stay away from much discussion on leadership. It’s a word that, when in a headline, has readers’ eyes glossing over.
But it’s clearly a sensitive topic to center Derrick Nix, who’s had the unenviable task of following Draymond Green as perceived team leader and captain. Nix feels the criticism when it appears leadership is lacking. But here’s what he said Tuesday night about why MSU is so good late in close games:
“I think it’s our togetherness and our leadership. A lot of people say I’m not Draymond Green or whatever, but I’ve got help.
“(Branden) Dawson helps me lead, (Adreian) Payne helps me lead, (Keith) Appling helps me lead, Byrd helps me lead. â€¦ There’s not just one leader on this team.”
This, after earlier telling me …
“There are no egos on this team. That’s why I love this team. No disrespect to the previous years that I’ve been here. But I think this is the best team, being a senior, that I’ve been on since high school. I love this team. I love every player from Appling to (Keenan) Wetzel.”
Every team has egos to some degree. Still, hearing Nix explain his feelings for this team, one he probably feels more responsibility toward than any other he’s been on, was a moment worth sharing.
As is this. Here’s a short YouTube video of MSU’s postgame celebration, from Spartan All-Access.