On Friday night at the Breslin Center, the Michigan State Spartans cruised to victory over the Broncos of Western Michigan by a score of 90 to 46 in the home opener for the Green and White. In the postgame press conference, head coach Tom Izzo was generally upbeat, but still feels that his team has a lot of room for growth.
“We cranked it up defensively and got our running game going,” Izzo said. “You can see that we are still aren’t smooth yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re still not in sync.”
In other words, there were a lot of good things that happened on Friday night and a few other areas where Coach Izzo expects some improvement in the near future.
In general, Michigan State’s post play was strong against Western Michigan. Junior forward Joey Hauser posted a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, including a pair of threes. Hauser also wound up with four assists.
“Joey is solid as a rock right now,” Izzo said. “He’s playing awfully well.”
Hauser seems to have found more of his comfort zone after struggling a bit through his first active season on campus in the middle of a global pandemic last year.
“I just have a better feel and I’m more comfortable out there,” Hauser said. “Last year I kind of felt like a freshmen a little bit all over again.”
Hauser’s primary tag-team partner in the frontcourt, senior center Marcus Bingham Jr., also had another strong performance on Friday night. Bingham posted 12 points, eight boards, and two blocks in just 18 minutes of action.
After a poor shooting performance beyond the arc in the Champions’ Classic match up with Kansas, Bingham focused his efforts on scoring in the paint. Coach Izzo even remarked that he wanted to keep Bingham inside of the “force field” that is the three-point line.
“He’s a weapon down there as you all saw tonight,” senior guard Gabe Brown said of his teammate. “(Bingham) posts hard. He gets the ball with two hands and goes to a jump hook. That’s his specialty. Coaches don’t want him shooting fadeaways and shooting threes. Marcus is a hell of a player. Down there (in the paint) he’s unstoppable.”
But it wasn’t just the frontcourt players who were collecting all of the rebounds. Gabe Brown had seven, freshman guard Max Christie collected six, sophomore point guard AJ Hoggard gathered four, and freshman guard Jaden Akins collected three. In total, the Spartans outrebounded the Broncos 58 to 28.
Coach Izzo even went so far as to invoke the name of former Spartan great Charlie Bell, the benchmark for rebounding prowess as a guard in reference to his two freshman guards this year. Izzo seemed particularly pleased with the rebounding of Max Christie who he did not expect to be able to rebound at this level this soon.
“I think he could be a strength of this team,” Izzo said. “But, I’m not ready to say that yet.”
One of the other bright spots on the evening was the Spartans’ transition game. The box score credited the Spartans with 25 fast break points. The Green and White appeared to be flying up and down the court all night long.
The revitalized Spartan running game has been sparked by the two-headed monster at the point guard position composed of junior transfer Tyson Walker and sophomore AJ Hoggard. The two players combined for 16 points and 12 assists on the night.
Hoggard, especially, pushed the ball aggressively and his teammate are definitely taking notice.
“AJ has been here for a year or so and maybe feels a little bit more comfortable pushing the ball,” Hauser said of his teammate. “But honestly, they’re interchangeable.”
As for Walker, he still seems to be in the process of finding his comfort zone, but progress was made in the home opener. Walker seemed more comfortable running the offense in the half court, and he seemed more willing to look for his shot. Walker even hit a three-pointer on Friday night.
“I still think that he is feeling his way,” Coach Izzo said of Walker. “I think he’s pressing a little bit and trying to figure out what to do.” Izzo mentioned that it would likely take a little while for Walker to completely adjust to Michigan State’s style of play.
Walker admitted that the pace of play and the speed at which Michigan State gets into transition is greater than what he is used to.
“Although I’m very fast, I’ve never played fast, which is kind of crazy,” Walker said. “So it’s definitely the biggest adjustment I’ve ever had to make.”
As for the positives on the evening, Gabe Brown summed it up the best.
“We do the little things and we are trying to bring the culture back,” Brown said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do last year. We didn’t have the culture. We didn’t rebound, run, and defend like we were supposed to.”
Despite the 44-point win, there were still a few areas where Coach Izzo expects to see more improvement. First, the Spartans did not have a good shooting night, especially from the three-point line. In total, Michigan State was a dismal 4-for-19 (21 percent) from beyond the arc.
Freshman sniper Max Christie only made one of six shots from three-point range, while captains Brown and Malik Hall missed a combined six shots from deep . However, Coach Izzo does not seem to be concerned in the long term.
“I thought we had some great, great looks, and they’ll fall,” Izzo said. “Max Christie is one of the best shooters I have ever had here...I don’t even think twice about his shooting. I mean, he’s that good.”
AJ Hoggard agreed.
“Max and Gabe aren’t going to miss many more shots like they did today,” Hoggard said. “Seventeen points and no threes is not ‘Gabe.’ He’s not going to miss that many shots.”
But one thing that is still bothering Coach Izzo is the turnovers. The Spartans wound up with just 13 turnovers overall, but eight of them came in the first half. MSU committed 16 turnovers in the game against Kansas.
“Those turnovers,” Izzo said. “We made a decision as a team that they have to be more non-negotiable.”
When asked to explain what exactly Coach Izzo meant by “non-negotiable” Hoggard was able to clarify the situation.
“Some of them are going to be OK,” Hoggard said “You can’t play the game without turning it over. It’s going to happen. But, Blatantly just turning the ball over, like throwing the ball when you know somebody can’t get it, or trying to force the issue with the pass, or forcing the issue with a drive. Anything like that is non negotiable.”
What is also not up for debate is that the Spartans are now 1-1. Next up on the schedule is a road trip to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to face Butler in the Gavitt Games next Wednesday (Nov. 17) at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on FS1.
Full video of each post-game press conference interview can be viewed below.