EAST LANSING – Matt Costello works hard. The Michigan State senior plays hard, too. Yet those tidy little bromides aren’t always enough, as Costello himself will tell you.
The 6-foot-9 center is having a solid season. He starts for the No. 1-ranked team in the country, is close with the team’s best player, Denzel Valentine, and enjoys an easy chemistry with everyone on the roster.
He is, by most anyone’s expectation, an exemplary college basketball player and student, and if he were to stay on his current path, he will surely look back on his collegiate career with warmth and fondness and almost no regret.
If anything, Costello is an underrated player, his coach, Tom Izzo, concedes. But Izzo also knows there is more for Costello to give, that his big man, after three-plus years in the program, is still searching for the kind of consistency that could truly propel this team.
“He’s got to play with an edge more often,” Izzo said. “Yeah, I’ve been disappointed a little that he’s been up and down. But in fairness to him, maybe we have to go to him a little more, too.”
We have all sorts of ways to describe what sometimes eludes Costello: confidence, belief, self-awareness, a short memory, which really means finding a way to be consistently comfortable.
This matters in all sports but especially in basketball, a competition that unfolds on our most intimate stage, played in armless jerseys and lightweight shorts, without benefit of helmet or padding, before a crowd that includes fans seated on the field of play.
In other words, there is no place to hide in this game, and for an analytical sort like Costello, such naked exposure can get in the way.
“I have my own stuff going on in my head,” he said.
Sometimes that stuff is anger, as it was against Florida a couple of weeks ago, when Costello played with a nasty disposition and helped lead MSU to a win on a night when Valentine struggled.
Sometimes that stuff is disrespect. Not real disrespect, but straw-man disrespect, which Costello uses to work himself into a frenzy, as he did against Kansas because that team’s big men arrived with plenty of press clippings.
Costello scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds against the Jayhawks. Beyond that, he played with the sort of physical edge on the block that makes MSU championship worthy.
“I had something to prove,” he admitted. “They had Perry Ellis and all those other big guys.”
So what about the nights when he isn’t playing with a chip on his shoulder? Well, there are still a few too many of those.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to hype myself up like that every game,” he said.
As Valentine put it, when Costello plays with an attitude, “he brings another factor to our game. He rubs off on our whole team.”
Maybe it’s because we don’t expect big guys to bring that sort of obvious tenacity, so when they do, the surprise serves as a lit fuse. Or maybe it’s because basketball is still played from the inside out, and even in this era of three-point step-back bombs, teams — championship teams — have to control the boards and the paint.
The Florida game is a good example of this dynamic. That night MSU’s guards and wings struggled to hit shots, until Costello made a few baskets down low.
Once that happened and the ball kept coming down his way, the defense had no choice but to sag, which gave Costello a chance to kick the ball back out. That makes for better shots.
Like Izzo said, sometimes the team can forget about Costello.
“We will try to do our job a little better,” Izzo said, but “he’s got to do his job a little better, too.”
Just as he did this past week in overtime at the Palace, when upset-minded Oakland had MSU in a dogfight, and Costello knocked down a critical turnaround off the glass.
“It’s all mentality,” he said. “I’m trying to find a balance, trying to find my place within the team.”
Not on the team as much as on the court. Because when he does, said Valentine, “he’s one of the best big men in the country, and the sky is the limit, for him and for us.”