AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Boys will be boys, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t mind rough-housing between his players if the confrontation serves a purpose.
Center Derrick Nix and point guard Keith Appling, two of his tri-captains and “best friends” since Detroit Pershing High, got into a shouting match and towel-slapping incident Saturday during a timeout with 12:45 remaining in the Spartans’ 70-48 NCAA Midwest Regional win over Memphis.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Izzo said with a smile. “It reminds me of (Mateen) Cleaves and them (on the 2000 national championship team). It’s better when your team is getting a little feisty. Keith didn’t want to take anything from Nix, so he told him. That’s all good. Trust me, in my program, that’s all good. They got into it a little bit and I enjoyed it.”
Nix, standing on the left side of the huddle with Izzo seated in the middle, had words with Appling, who was seated on the right side of the huddle. Nix swatted Appling with a white towel and Appling said something back while swatting him with his own towel.
“It was just a miscommunication on a ball screen,” Nix said. “But he’s my best friend, and I love him to death. Coach (Izzo) says that a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team. It was over with in two seconds.”
Izzo encourages his players to make constructive criticisms of one another.
“He likes that if it’s done for the right reasons,” Nix said in the locker room at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Appling said, “We all want to win so bad. It’s a fiery moment in the huddle. It was nothing. We’ve been around each other for so long. Stuff like that has happened so many times.”
Appling, who left the game four minutes later after his right shoulder popped out, said he could have returned and would not miss Friday’s Sweet 16 game in Indianapolis against the winner of Sunday’s Duke-Creighton game. The same shoulder popped out Feb. 6 against Minnesota and he did not miss a game after that.
“They know how to get at each other and are roommates,” forward Branden Dawson said of Nix and Appling. “Derrick felt Keith was not doing his job and called him out. Only, you can’t do it out there.”
Dawson chuckled, knowing that would lead to a question about him and roommate and good friend Adreian Payne having a fist fight in the team hotel at Penn State on Jan. 16. Police were called to the scene, but no charges were filed.
“We’re all men,” Dawson said. “Me and Payne, too. That helped us get along, and I think we came together more as a team then, too.”
Izzo said, “I blame the Palace a little bit. Thirteen years ago, you know, one of the most famous things that ever happened to me was walking down the hallway and listening to Mateen Cleaves get on his best friend in the world, Morris Peterson.”
Cleaves and Peterson also happened to be tri-captains, and their team then went onto Indianapolis to win the Final Four.