"Street fight. That's a good way to put it. We had an alum that was down there and the first thing he said to me was that it looked like our street fighting days".
That's a direct quote from Tom Izzo in the postgame press conference last night. A Big Ten head coach, after a game where one of his players was ejected for intentionally taking a swing at someone's face, agreed with a reporter using the term "street fight" in his question and then carried that further, talking about how a former player suggested it looked like their "street fighting days".
"We just wanted to be the aggressor. We didn't want to get hit first. We wanted to go hit them first."
That's a quote from Michigan State guard Josh Langford after the game when asked about the "chippiness" of the game. No, he's not literally saying "go hit them" - it's a metaphor. But when applied to a question he was answering about the chippiness of the game, and when noting that they expected chippiness from Illinois and wanted to "hit them first", I think it's fairly easy to see the gameplan from Michigan State last evening.
I mean, it seemed obvious to me in the arena (and likely to you on TV). Here's what I tweeted ten minutes into the game:
My feel so far: Michigan State said "let's be really, really physical with them and if we foul, we foul". They've fouled, but they've also taken us completely out of everything we're trying to do.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) February 24, 2021
(For those of you just discovering this article from other parts of Big Ten land, yes, I "we". I'm an Illinois fan who has been fully credentialed for eight years and I use words like "we" and "us" from press row. There are fans in every pressbox I've been in - I'm just one of the few to lead with it.)
As a fan, my sensors are perhaps uniquely tuned to pick up things like this. "This" being a head coach and star player having no issue using fighting metaphors after a game where a player was ejected for two-handed swing at Ayo Dosunmu's face. Perhaps they could not see it (Tom Izzo said he'd "have to check the film" when talking about it in the press conference, and that was his own reference when talking about foul trouble because no MSU reporters asked about the ejection), but still, it's a Flagrant-2 and an ejection, something that happens around once every Big Ten season. Flagrant-2's are very rare, a huge deal, and almost always result in suspensions. I feel like almost every coach I've covered would stay far away from "street fight" after a Flagrant-2 was called on one of his players in a game.
After seeing the replay myself, I'm assuming that Mady Sissoko will be receiving a suspension from the Big Ten. There have been suspensions for Flagrant-1 fouls in the past (Brad Davison's nut punch - sorry, to clarify, the Davison nut punch against Iowa last year - was only called a Flagrant 1 during the game yet he was suspended by the league). It took two days for Alan Griffin to receive his two-game suspension last year, so perhaps the Sissoko suspension will come tomorrow.
Maybe I should go through all of this a little slower. With gifs.
Let's start with Alan Griffin's suspension last year. In January of 2020, he was ejected with a Flagrant 2 for this play where he stepped on Sasha Stefanovic:
After the game, in the press conference, Brad Underwood noted that he had Alan Griffin apologize to Stefanovic after the game and that "we don't condone any of that". Griffin was later suspended by the Big Ten for two games.
The big difference here, obviously: Griffin's was a non-basketball dirty play (one referred to as "The Laettner") while Sissoko's was a basketball play. But it's a basketball play referred to as "The Laimbeer" - bring both arms down violently and guarantee that no shot is going up. It was everywhere in the 70's and 80's and completely eliminated from today's game.
Which is why Sissoko received a Flagrant-2. I think it's important to note that most fouls such as Sissoko's receive a Flagrant-1 classification because it's a live ball. Most live-ball plays where there's intent to swing at someone above the shoulders are defined as Flagrant-1. Swinging at someone's head during a dead ball situation is what you'd call a "fight", so that's a Flagrant-2.
Flagrant-2 (which includes ejection) is also available to the officials if they determine there was "unsportsmanlike conduct that is extreme in nature". The officials last night determined that Sissoko's arms swinging at Ayo's face qualified as "unsportsmanlike conduct that is extreme in nature", and so he was given a Flagrant-2 and ejected.
Which is why I'm so surprised at Izzo's postgame comments. If it's a Flagrant-1, you know that your player did something excessive, likely towards the guy's face, but elbows and shoulders and fists sometimes happen in a chippy game. Flagrant-1 is there to settle everyone down. If it's a Flagrant-2, you know it crossed the "extreme" line. Flagrant-2 is very rare, and when it happens, you know it had to be bad.
Izzo may not have seen the play, but he did know it was a Flagrant-2. So I expected to see him say what Underwood said after the Purdue game in 2020. Something like "we had Sissoko personally apologize to Dosunmu" and such. Instead, he seemed to enjoy having the game characterized as a "street fight". I was stunned.
I just realized that I'm this far into the article and I haven't shown you the play yet. Let's remedy that.
Here's the full sequence as it was shown on the broadcast:
Mady Sissoko is ejected from the game after contact to the face of Ayo Dosunmu during a drive to the basket. pic.twitter.com/mgIk8SiCw9— CBB Talk (@CBBSuperFan) February 24, 2021
I've made a few gifs so you can see the play that officials determined to be "unsportsmanlike conduct that is extreme in nature":
And from this angle you can really see the blow to the head. The isn't an attempt at the ball. The ball was stripped away, but even it it wasn't, this wasn't a motion trying to block a shot. This was a Laimbeer:
I have to assume that a Big Ten suspension comes on Thursday for Sissoko. Michigan State has a game against Ohio State Thursday evening, and the conference usually tries to get suspension determinations finalized prior to the next game. If I had to guess, a three-game suspension. If there's nothing, I'll be very, very surprised.
But perhaps not as surprised as I am at the silence from Tom Izzo today. Some of the Michigan State media latched onto the "street fight" quote from Izzo last night, tweeting about it and using it as part of their headlines. So with that quote on the record, after reviewing the film of the play today, I expected something in the manner of "we don't condone that" or "after reviewing the film I'd like to note that what Sissoko did has no place in this game" to get out in front of the impending suspension. Maybe that comes when the suspension is announced, but I was very surprised to find nothing on my search.
Why? Because of how everything looks. I'll just walk you though my personal view of this.
+ It was quite obvious 10 minutes into the game that the Michigan State gameplan was to get very physical, thus the tweet I linked above. That doesn't mean "dirty" - just physical. And it worked. They could live with all the foul calls because it took Ayo and Kofi off their games.
+ Fouling seemed to be part of the gameplan. I think this was obvious to anyone in attendance. Sissoko also had this play where he swiped down on Kofi's head:
That's not an attempt to block a shot or anything else. It's a "don't come in here" message mixed in with "foul him so he doesn't get a shot off", just like the Ayo play. It's a safety saying "do not throw over the middle or you will pay".
+ It worked. Illinois was beyond frustrated. Kofi took out his frustration this way (and would have received a Flagrant-1 had the officials caught it).
Who hit who in the head, Pat? pic.twitter.com/gyg8MaHyb2— Can't Read, Can't Write (@spartan_pod) February 24, 2021
+ But then Sissoko took a two-handed violent swing at Ayo's head. And when that happens, any apparent "make them feel it" gameplan from the coaches suddenly looks like they were asking their players to deliver hits like that. After that, most every coaching staff distances themselves, loudly, in front of cameras, in the other direction. It's the New Orleans Saints after the Gregg Williams scandal. Say "we don't condone we don't condone" about 50 times.
+ Tom Izzo... seemed to celebrate the characterization of a street fight, said his former player told him it "looked like our street fighting days", and then remained silent today? Some schools get so far out in front of Flagrant-2 suspensions that they suspend the player before the Big Ten can act, like Maryland did with the Diamond Stone suspension five years ago. So I was expecting Michigan State to do something like that today, yet I can't find any reference to it.
Again, it's not like this issue was confined to the Illinois and Michigan State fanbases. National media were tweeting about the "dirty play" and noting that Michigan State is "better than that":
Dirty play by Sissoko going for the face, period. And that's after hitting Coburn in the head. Michigan State is better than that.— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) February 24, 2021
So it seems like this would be a PR issue that Tom Izzo would want to get in front of. There's likely a suspension coming, and he's on tape last night referencing street fights, so get way out in front and say that this kind of play was not what you were referencing when you said that. "When Josh Langford said 'we wanted to go hit them first', that was a figure of speech and not something our staff instructed our players to do." Something like that. Yet, after scouring the internet, I can't find anything.
Look, I understand that fighting metaphors are used all the time. Langford didn't really mean "go hit them first". Izzo wasn't looking for a literal "street fight". But when a player does what Sissoko did, and he does that in a game where hard fouls appear to have been encouraged as part of the gameplan - those were some "Bill Self giving Lucas Johnson a green light" fouls last night - I'm stunned that a coach wouldn't distance himself from such metaphors.
As far as I can tell, there have been dozens of Flagrant-1 calls but only two Flagrant-2 calls in the last two Big Ten seasons: Alan Griffin last year and Mady Sissoko this year. So they're extremely rare. Last year, Brad Underwood addressed it immediately in the postgame, having his player personally apologize.
Tom Izzo talked about street fights.