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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis reflections

NCAA Basketball: Championship-Baylor at Michigan State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After the Michigan State Spartans played three games in three days, I figured I would drop you all a line with some thoughts on the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament — I will try to write some more as the season progresses...

Signs of Promise and Clear Areas of Improvement:

Heading into this tournament, I thought the Spartans would be hard-pressed to win two games, and thought that both of those wins would likely come in the loser’s bracket. That Tom Izzo and crew were able to beat not only Loyola-Chicago, a team that will likely win a game in the NCAA Tournament, but also UConn, which, if all breaks well for the Huskies, could be a second-weekend team in this year’s NCAA Tournament, can be viewed as nothing less than a smashing success. Not only did the team chalk up two wins for seeding purposes, but the Spartans gritted out tough wins, and showed for a half, at least, that they can hang with any top-10 team in the nation (just about).

In fact, I think that if the Baylor game had been played on full-rest for both teams, that the Spartans would have had the game within two-possessions with four minutes to go. In the tournament setup as it played out (three games in three days), Michigan State’s athletic and relative depth limitations proved insurmountable. Marcus Bingham Jr., Malik Hall, Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser all played tired, mentally and emotionally, in the final against the excellent Baylor Bears.

After seven games, however, this team has continued to demonstrate some major areas of strength while consistently revealing areas of improvement that, crucially, are highly-fixable. Defensively, this team should remain a top-10 defense all season because Bingham is one of the top-10 defenders in the nation, because the wings have enough length to bother any team and because the pick-and-roll defense by the entire team is just light-years better than last season. Offensively, the team has a go-to scorer in Gabe Brown (if he can get shots), has a clear proficiency in transition and has already demonstrated an ability to generate great shots through sharp passing in the half-court.

The areas for improvement should surprise nobody: turnovers, consistent half-court shot-generation and getting the team’s highest-potential offensive players as comfortable as possible — namely, Max Christie, Hall, Brown and Walker. Christie, who I foolishly assumed would come in right away and play like the NBA player he will become, continues to struggle in discerning when and how to create the best shots for himself, continues to miss open shots that he spent the last four years making and generally has yet to settle down offensively. Hall’s outstanding potential flashed brightly against Loyola-Chicago with a career-high 24 points (while not missing a shot from the field) before sputtering starkly against UConn and Baylor. Brown has had solid performances and disappeared for stretches, and Walker has yet to live up to the heights that many foresaw coming into the season.

All of the offensive questions are fixable — the team needs some rhythm games, some more practice time and to develop a consistent set of fall-back sets to run in the third phase of the offense, some of which we actually saw during this tournament (a really exciting ahead-of-schedule development compared to recent Spartan teams).

Let’s talk about the individuals...

Player notes:

Tyson Walker - Walker has yet to really get aggressive with his scoring game, which is a problem because his passing game does not have the potential that his scoring game does, and because his turnovers while seeking to pass have been beyond disruptive to the team. He needs to get aggressive getting to the paint, and to simply take open shots. We have yet to see anything resembling an all-defense player that he was in the CAA, so hopefully he rounds into form on that end (he’s been fine at best at the point of attack).

Max Christie - Simply not comfortable: missing wide-open shots, hesitating at times on the dribble and inconsistent off-ball defensively. He has been terrific passing the ball, which I expected, and has been solid not overly-forcing things. Keep shooting, Max! The staff needs to get him running more pick-and-roll (which will allow Walker to shoot off-ball), and will get him to the free-throw line more, which will boost his confidence. Christie will round into form by the end of non-conference play, but he will not be a one-and-done guy (I was dead wrong on that one).

Gabe Brown - Has really popped on the dribble this season, and has increasingly slowed down his pace, which has improved play-outcomes. Shooting the ball terrifically, playing solid defense (after that first foul-fest against Loyola-Chicago) and has done a superb job on the glass. His energy and leadership carried Michigan State at times in the Bahamas, and he and Hall have done a good job in less-familiar leadership roles. Gabe is playing his way into NBA Draft conversations at this rate. Just look at how excellent he has been this season:

Gabe Brown. Consistently strong

Malik Hall - Is frustrating. He gave a terrific Alan Anderson-like performance against Loyola, and then just receded to the background against UConn and Baylor. It was almost as if he was worried about affecting his percentages. He needs to take a page out of Aaron Henry’s book from last season — ultra-aggressive at all times regardless of makes-or-misses —because if he does, then this season’s peak-potential gets unlocked. When Hall is “on,” then this team has a half-court isolation creator from the elbow, an actual-stretch forward option, and a guy who can make plays in the in-between-spaces against zones. Hall cannot be a passenger if this team is going to have a great season.

Marcus Bingham Jr. - Not much to say about Bingham. Yes, he wore down physically and mentally in the second and third games of the tournament, but that should surprise no one. The NCAA tournament is not played on back-to-backs, and that is what matters. Bingham, when rested, is one of the top-10 defenders in the nation by just about every metric, the easiest sign is his NET rating, which tells how dominant he is both on the court and how significant his absence is, but take a look at his “rested-game’”stocks (steals plus blocks), rebounds, and his rebound and stock rates:

Marcus Bingham jr. Excellent in “rest” games

Goodness gracious. Yes, the Baylor numbers will not flatter; yes, the UConn numbers did not flatter; but I am telling you that if Bingham played either team with a day or two of rest that his performances would have been markedly better (see what I did there?). This kid has become what he promised at the end of last season, and he will anchor a legendary defense by the end of the season.

AJ Hoggard - Much improved physically, and his offensive flashes (particularly in transition) cannot help but excite, but his defense has been awful thus far, and his turnovers have been horrendous. If Hoggard can tighten up and clean up his turnovers, while maintaining his aggression and physicality, then his offensive game will take off (maybe even justifying a starting role). But his future depends on his commitment to defense and to holding himself accountable on that end. He has everything needed to be a lock-down defender, and, if he does not become that, then he will never become an NBA-level or lower-professional-level player. The shooting is something that he has two more seasons (and offseasons) to work on, but the defense and turnovers are facets of his game that can, should, and must change this season.

Julius Marble - Thrilling season so far for Marble. I was unsure if he would ever become a replacement-level defender, but through seven games he has been even a bit better than that, which is a monstrous development for the team’s ceiling. His offense remains solid, and he is so much better physically with his footwork and quickness. It is that footwork and foot-speed development that has given him the confidence needed on defense to trust himself, which means that he does not feel compelled to hack the way he did his first two seasons. Vital cog.

Jaden Akins - While others faded a bit over the course of the tournament, Akins grew into his role and into the final against Baylor in a performance that demonstrated just how exciting of a prospect he is, and gave a glimpse of what an outstanding player he will become. The question with Akins is: “How soon?” How soon can he really become a lock-down defensive stopper on the perimeter? He has shown glimpses this season, and is slowly but surely acclimating to the speed and athleticism of the college game. How soon will the staff find a consistent offensive role for him? His one-on-one ability is one of the best on the team, and his slashing and athleticism can break-games open. How soon will his shot come around? Like Christie, Akins is a far better shooter than he has shown thus far this season — if he and Christie can both get in the gym and get their shooting rhythm back, then this team’s offensive potential takes a major leap. Akins has a higher ceiling than any guard other than Christie on the roster, but it is clear that the staff will find it tough to give him the reigns on offense over Walker and Hoggard — a tricky balancing act. What is clear is that Akins as the fourth/fifthth man on this team will be a potent force by the end of the season. In particular, MSU fans should expect Akins to be the most important defensive player other than Bingham this season — he is the only guy on the team who will be able to match-up with elite wings like Jaden Ivey, Johnny Davis, Boo Buie and whoever the Spartans face in the NCAA Tournament.

Joey Hauser - Hauser has struggled in most areas thus far this season. Defensively, he will slide well with his man two-to-three times per game, while struggling to make any sort of defensive impression on about 10-15 plays per game. Offensively, he will hit a shot or two, or get to the line, or make a solid pass, but then really struggles to make any sort of impact for most of the game. His physical and athletic regression from his high school days to now has been stark and distressing. Fortunately, the team has enough depth and bodies to not rely on him on either end — here’s hoping his game and athleticism take a dramatic turn for the better.

Mady Sissoko - Sissoko was not ready to play in the Bahamas. He looked out of sorts on both ends, and generally not-in-sync with the team or the level of play. He still struggles at times with coordination and to find the flow of the game defensively, but, by the middle of conference play, I expect him to have his fair share of crucial performances. His physicality and length will be vital against Kofi Cockburn, Qudus Wahab, Trevion Williams, Zach Edey, and Hunter Dickinson. Those are the games and minutes that matter for Mady this season.

Pierre Brooks II - Brooks scored a crucial five points against UConn and has already flashed both his offensive potential and his areas for improvement: he needs to get quicker, stronger and to speed up his processing of the game. His stroke and finishing should serve him well, but he cannot have a consistent role until he gets better defensively, and fits into the offensive system more seamlessly.

Stylistic comment and strategic outlook:

The one and only question for this team, all season, will be “Can the Spartans be consistent in their half-court offense?”

We have already seen some positive indications on flex actions that get Bingham some post-ups, wide-pin-downs have already helped get Brown and Christie looks, and the Spain pick-and-roll and dive-and-replace actions have gotten Hauser and Hall good looks at the three-point arc.

Sets that I would like to see incorporated into the repertoire: some hammer-actions with Hoggard finding Christie in the corner, much more pistol action off delayed breaks to get Hall, Christie, Brown and Akins chances to attack the rim or create for others off the bounce in early offense.

There is also a ton of potential offense that the team can create for Hall out of the elbow IF he is aggressive and assertive when he gets it there (In the Baylor game, I have no clue why the staff did not get him touches on the elbow like they did for Aaron Henry last season). I would also be intrigued to see the staff “flip” the offense by posting Hoggard against smaller guards — that is a facet of his game that either needs to be in play, if he has it, or developed immediately because his physical ability and passing touch from the block will really put teams under-pressure.

Finally, running more weave sets will get Brown, Christie and Akins chances to attack in straight-line-drives or, when teams go switch-heavy against the weave, it will provide a ton of weak-side wing three-point shots off of flare-screens, or empty-baseline drives when bigs elevate to set screens.

I expect many of these sets to be installed over the rest of the non-conference and the team’s half-court defense to steadily improve through the start of Big Ten play. By the end of the season, a four-headed offensive juggernaut driven by Christie, Brown, Hall and Walker-Hoggard-Akins should get high-level complimentary scoring from the front-court and easy buckets generated by an outstanding defense.

Lineup and sub-pattern comments:

I think the current starting group of Walker, Christie, Brown, Hall and Bingham is likely the strongest starting group IF (and only if) Walker increases his aggression as a scorer. He has not consistently pressured defenses and he really does not need to be overly concerned with being “the passer” in this playing group precisely because Christie and Hall are such solid passers and because even Brown has begun to expand his passing game.

The Hoggard-Marble connection that appears to be developing in the early portion of the season makes for quite a potent duo to come in off the bench. And Akins’ increasing confidence on both ends makes for a rock-solid eight-man rotation. The question is how to leverage Hauser and when to use Sissoko (and Brooks).

Hauser simply must play with Bingham. End of story. He needs the shot-blocker on the court with him. He also really benefits from having at least two of Hall, Brown and Akins —the team’s top-three perimeter defenders — who can help him on switches, can help him on long recoveries with stunts and late-contests if Hauser can’t fight through screens, and all of whom have done very well on the glass this season.

Theoretically, Walker has some sort of rapport with Hauser (though we have yet to see it with anything resembling consistency), so ideally he too is on the court. What does all of this mean, though, for the rotation and sub-pattern? Here is a quick rundown of how I see the ideal sub-pattern looking:

Starters: Walker, Christie, Brown, Hall, Bingham Jr.

Prioritize paint-touches for Bingham to get him feeling good about himself (primarily off of Walker or Christie pick-and-rolls), get elbow touches for Hall so that he feels compelled to be aggressive, and find Christie and Brown on off-ball sets running off of double screens, elevator plays or weave-actions.

First subs (Hoggard and Marble for Walker and Bingham) — under-16-minute timeout

Hoggard, Christie, Brown, Hall, Marble

Here the offense focuses on Hoggard-Marble pick-and-roll, pistol actions for Christie, Hall and Brown and some post-ups for Hoggard (ideally).

Second subs (Akins, Hauser and Bingham Jr. for Christie, Hall and Marble) — under-12-minute timeout

Hoggard, Akins, Brown, Hauser, Bingham Jr.

The offense can run a lot of Spain pick-and-roll with Hoggard-Hauser-Bingham. I would like to see some hammer-actions with Hoggard looking for Brown or Hauser in the corner, and I would love to see some baseline clear-outs for Akins to attack baseline.

Third subs (Walker, Christie and Hall for Hoggard, Brown and Bingham Jr.] — under 10 minutes to play

Walker, Akins, Christie, Hall, Hauser

A small-ball line-up with Hauser at the five will not be a strong-line-up for long, but while this group is out there, high-pressure, gang-rebounding and continuous off-ball movement should be the expectation. Having five-out will put a ton of pressure on opposing bigs, and give Walker, Akins, Christie and Hall ample opportunity to pressure the rim with more space behind the defense.

Fourth subs (Hoggard and Sissoko for Akins and Hauser] — under-eight-minute timeout

Hoggard, Walker, Christie, Hall, Sissoko

Bringing both point guards in allows Walker to shift off-ball, which means that this playing group should prioritize generating Walker and Christie three-point looks. Getting Hall elbow touches would be a great start; I would also love to see big-big pick-and-roll plays with Hall and Sissoko because the havoc that this would cause to the back-lines of opposing defenses should generate a TON of secondary offense from drives from Hoggard and Walker. Defensively, Sissoko has to challenge everything — use your fouls Mady — and Christie and Hoggard have to help Hall and Sissoko on the glass.

Final subs (Brown and Bingham Jr. or Marble for Hoggard and Sissoko] — under five minutes to play

Walker, Christie, Brown, Hall, Bingham Jr./Marble

The staff should close halves with the hot-hand at the center. Most nights it will be Bingham, but there will be some smaller teams where Marble’s offensive punch will be too important. Back to focusing on Christie and Brown shots, with other guys playing a secondary role.

If Michigan State fans increasingly see more subs that protect Hauser defensively (always Bingham, and two of the top-three wing defenders), and have a clear offensive strategy based on the lineup, then MSU fans will also likely see increasingly consistent half-court production. And if opponents see that, they will also see a lot of losses.

Go Green!