Street Fight

Feb 25, 2021

"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".

Street fight.

"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:

(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:

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).

+ 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":

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.


ktcesw on February 25, 2021 @ 04:27 AM

MSU was being very physical the whole game. The refs chose to let it go. Sissoko was trying to stop IL from getting shots off. Guys do what the officials allow. They need to suspend the refs for this.

tvillini on February 25, 2021 @ 06:57 AM

I kinda felt like the F2 was in part because they didn’t call the F1 earlier when he came down on Kofi’s head. Or maybe because the F1 was almost called earlier.

And the Big Ten office could easily say, “we don’t know if you were intentionally trying to harm, but you were playing recklessly and need to take a time out to re-evaluate.”

Lastly, Izzo only cares about winning. He’ll talk about trying to, “develop better men” but it’s all nonsense. He wants to win. And he’s got his team playing well for the first time all season. He’s not going to jeopardize that by throwing his team under the bus. I’ll bet he whines and moans about a suspension.

STLINI on February 25, 2021 @ 08:27 AM

Izzo has been my most hated coach for a long time. He cries and whines to the refs more than anybody, and gets away with more because I'm sure he wears them down. Screw him.

BCstealn on February 25, 2021 @ 09:42 AM

The more I see the replays the more disgusted I feel and if the rumors I hear are true, we will have lost our All-American for at least the Nebraska game.......

IlliniJoe81 on February 25, 2021 @ 09:52 AM

Tom Izzo should be suspended for encouraging dirty play. We have a NPOY candidate with a broken nose who will miss games and have to wear a mask the rest of the season. This is on Izzo and as a member of the media you need to be raising hell about this non-stop. This was a deliberate tactic by Izzo to try to get to the NCAA Tournament with his talentless hack squad.

uilaw71 on February 25, 2021 @ 03:54 PM

Totally agree that Robert should be raising hell about this reprehensible conduct - particularly Izzy. MSU is already known for protecting criminals. What was done to Ayo was a calculated assault. The BIG decision is cowardly, to say the least.

Sweetchuck13 on February 25, 2021 @ 09:58 AM

Good summary Robert. I wouldn't hold your breath on too much more attention on it - both the conference and the media tend to give Izzo the benefit of the doubt, and even promote how physical his teams play.

This MSU team in particular seems a bit less "talented" or at least is lacking the typical star player or scorer we have to really worry about. As a result, I think they play even more physical than usual. Sort of reminded me of some of our mid-Weber era teams that would just play defense and try to win 55-49 even if they weren't as talented.

Lastly, I don't expect to see Underwood show up in military fatigues at practice anytime soon, but this did remind me of how the last couple of Kruger teams were intimidated by MSU until Self showed up. Different era though - don't want to see the Illini adopt this strategy as I don't think it'll win in the tourney.

NC_OrangeKrush on February 25, 2021 @ 12:26 PM

I truly believe that if Illinois 'gave it back' to MSU last night, it would have been worse for our team. Even with 'all the fouls' they still only called half of them... Illinois has a reputation of being physical PLUS having Kofi... so what happens TO US is through that lens and they are not being called.. like Ayo's many drives into the lane or even 'tipping it to himself'. We need coach to work the refs and in a case like that game - take a stand and get a technical.. our guys needed to be defended to the refs by someone. Post game and film to the B1G didn't help the outcome... so nothing to lose there either.

IlliniBobLoblaw on February 25, 2021 @ 01:24 PM

Meh, this is kind of "Much Ayo About Nothing" for me - it just looks like a combination of a hard foul + physics. I mean, yes, Sissoko went in hard, but his momentum was carrying him, and had the ball not been stripped he could reasonably expect either the ball and/or Ayo's hands/arms to impede his own. As it was, without the ball Ayo's hands kept rising until his face was exposed. Just one of those things.

Seems comparable to targeting penalties - sometimes it's not the really the defender's fault, but the officials have to call it anyway to discourage further targeting. I don't think I really want coaches to have to apologize after every hard play that went wrong.

Dr. Chim Richalds on February 25, 2021 @ 02:03 PM

I think this is what explains the lack of strong response from Izzo and others. Whether the intent was to injure or not (maybe it was), this happened quickly on a play at the basket. The Griffin and Davison plays are clearly not basketball plays, while this one was borderline. To put it another way, this one is less clearly malicious on the first viewing, which often matters when it comes to emotional reaction and punishment (even if it's just as bad if not worse upon replay).

Now that we know Ayo is out, it will be interesting to see if there's a different response from the league and/or Izzo. If Izzo is still silent on this then I'll agree that it's a terrible look.

larue on February 25, 2021 @ 05:52 PM

What momentum? The only thing he does right on the play is jump straight up. He goes up with both hands raised, that's not what shot blockers do. His intention was to deliver a hard foul.

The officials could have called it a flagrant 1 if they thought there was no bad intent. Robert has already pointed out how rare a flagrant 2 is.

iluvrt on February 26, 2021 @ 06:26 PM

Thanks for the dumbest take I have read so far. How many years have your rooted for MSU?

IlliniJoe81 on February 25, 2021 @ 02:19 PM

I don't think it's so much that one specific play, although obviously that had the most severe consequences for Ayo. It's the "street fight" culture and the larger impact on the Big Ten and player safety along with the lack of consequences. Right now Izzo does this because it benefits him. It needs to not benefit him any more. Can you imagine if a player Kofi's size was on Michigan State? He could kill someone on the court. I almost don't blame the player at all. He wasn't jawing or angry. He was hitting guys because that's what he was told to do.

DB50 on February 25, 2021 @ 05:03 PM

Make no mistake, Mady Sissoko was sending a very hard and painful lesson to Ayo about driving the lane. I used to watch Lambeer for the Pistons do this until it was outlawed. What happened to Ayo wasn't surprising considering how the refs allowed the game to get too physical for a player's safety. Sissoko should have had another flagrant called for hitting Kofi on top of his head. Who knows, if a flagrant 1 was called there, Ayo might be just fine for tonight's game.

HNLINI on February 25, 2021 @ 10:58 PM

Based on Underwood's comments after the Nebraska game, it wouldn't surprise me if Ayo was out at least through the Michigan game - he implied, but did not straight out say, that some type of concussion protocol may be in play. He did say that it was up to the Dr.'s. And he made it clear that he wasn't going to do anything to put Ayo's career at risk, which makes me wonder if it is more than a simple nose issue.

larue on February 26, 2021 @ 07:24 AM

I doubt he would have been on the sidelines if he had a concussion. There are rumors of an orbital fracture

accy88 on February 27, 2021 @ 03:10 AM

Tom Izzo incourages dirty play. I now despise him for the disgusting coach he is. His thug tactics are seriously hurting Illinois' season. And has seriously impacted a great player and fine young man. May Izzo never make the NCAA tournament again. I am a fan of whoever is playing M St.

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