When Russell Byrd was named captain of this year’s Spartan squad, there were more than a few eyebrows that went up. Byrd was an unlikely choice, but due to things he had no control over he was pegged to lead a leaderless team with a monster amount of talent.
That is never easy. Let alone when he had yet to accomplish anything of note on a college basketball court. You can do it, but for Byrd it was going to be a big uphill climb. As the season has progressed, Byrd has gone from a small role to seeing it diminish more and more.
Last week Tom Izzo addressed the fact that it can be hard to lead for Byrd when he isn’t playing well. Can he call guys out when he isn’t performing well? Izzo said, “It is harder and yet Russ last night had some of the most intelligent things to say. He’s one guy that brought that up. You know, I’d sure like to see Russ get more and more time because right now, I think he’s seeing things. He’s at peace with where he is. I think he’s realizing that you know, he can be helpful in a lot of different ways but it’s hard when you’re not playing well yourself or you’re not playing a lot yourself.
I agree with Izzo. If you can’t score you must do in it in other ways. So when Byrd was called in at the Kohl Center on Tuesday night quick mistakes cost his team dearly. As you saw, the game was very tight and with more tough ones ahead, when will Byrd’s mistakes cost this team? With Byrd clearly suffering a crisis of confidence, does Izzo have the margin of error to keep trying?
Izzo said of Byrd after the game Tuesday night, “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 him at halftime you know, I keep saying it and I am not going to apologize for saying it. When we practice better, I told you when B.J was starting to play with more energy he’s playing better. Russ has been shooting very well. He’s earning that. But there is more than just shooting well. You have to have confidence in yourself and you could see he didn’t have that and were going to keep working with Russ. Because if we can ever get a guy like him who can shoot it as well as he is starting to shoot it in practice, it’s going to be a benefit for our team.”
This year more than most, Izzo is relying heavily on former players to talk to his current group of cagers. Is that lack of a leader the reason Izzo is doing that? “Yeah, yeah it’s one of the reasons. I know I’m lacking that and I’ve talked to some coaches and they think it’s the head coach’s responsibility that he has to take over that role. I think we’re gonna try to do more and more of that but I think it’s hard to do that.”
It’s not a secret that the team is in desperate need of leadership and Byrd is struggling to be one. So much so that it was Byrd that persuaded Izzo to name Appling a captain. Izzo said that, “It started out with Byrd coming to me a month ago and saying Keith deserves it.”
Keith Appling was named a captain Sunday night, but he was not a viable option to start the season because he had to overcome some adversity this past summer.
Something stood out to me in Madison. As the teams were about to start the second half the Spartans were gathering for the pre start huddle. You have seen it a hundred times. They gather and hold their hands together high in the air. Sometimes they say team, B1G champs, whatever the rallying call is for the game. Byrd kept shooting shots. As he sauntered over to the huddle his eyes were looking up into the crowd. He was on the outside. Not in the huddle leading. As an observer on the outside he was there, but not engaged.
We all know what happened next. In his only two minutes of play he came off the bench in the second half and had two personal fouls and two turnovers.
On Sunday night Keith Appling was named a captain. He is a great basketball player, but not a leader. Spartan Nation said it going back as far as the immediate conclusion of last season. This team has all the talent to win the Big Ten, but not the leaders.
As the Spartans play on the court continues to improve, Izzo leadership will be much more critical this year than ever. With the talent to win the best conference in basketball, can Izzo lead this team to it?
There could be and should be two number one NCAA seeds out there, depending on how things play out this season for the Big Ten. This team has the talent. They have a $4 million dollar a year Hall of Fame coach, but can they find the spark from either on the bench or on the court to lead them there? That is the story that will define this season.