Thursday night at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center, the Michigan State Spartans closed out exhibition play by defeating a scrappy Grand Valley State University squad by a final score of 83-60.
The game was not exactly a thing of beauty. MSU led comfortably for essentially the entire game, but GVSU provided just enough resistance to test the Spartans. The coaching staff also had the opportunity to experiment a bit before the Spartans dive into the deep end in the Champions Classic against Kansas next week on Tuesday.
In head coach Tom Izzo’s opening statement of the postgame press conference, he said that there were some things that were good and some other things that were “very average” about the Spartans’ play.
On the positive side, Coach Izzo was pleased with the Spartans’ defense and rebounding, but he saw more problems on the offense.
“We pushed the ball well, offensively,” Izzo said. “I was disappointed in our half court offense.”
The stat sheet seems to agree. The Spartans shot 49 percent from the field, but made only eight out of 25 attempts (32 percent) from three-point range. Even more surprising was the Spartans’ free throw shooting, which was a dismal 11-for-20 (55 percent). Izzo seemed annoyed by the shooting from the charity stripe, but not overly concerned.
“We’re a really good free-throw shooting team, and I’ve got the stats to show you,” Izzo said. “We’ve shot them all summer. So that means a little lack of focus or something. Those things are controllable.”
Izzo also spoke at some length about several of his players individually, starting with true freshman shooting guard Max Christie, who started for the Green and White. Christie led the team in scoring with 14 points, while making six of his 12 shot attempts, including two baskets on five attempts from the long line. Christie also led the team in minutes (26) and in plus/minus (+24).
“After these two exhibition games under our belt, I definitely feel more comfortable just in the system, just with college basketball in general,” the fast-talking Christie said.
Despite this production, though, Christie seems to be a bit of a perfectionist.
“I think Max is a little down on himself because he gave up some shots there late,” Izzo said. “His defense has been really good, though.”
Senior center Marcus Bingham also turned some heads on Thursday night. While Joey Hauser (13 points and nine rebounds) put up more points and rebounds than Bingham (11 points and seven rebounds), Bingham made his presence felt in the paint with six blocks. Coach Izzo was particularly pleased with his defense.
“Believe it or not, Marcus Bingham played as good defensively as he did offensively,” Izzo said, and it was not just the blocked shots Izzo was referring to. “His ball-screen defense that was missing in action last year was pretty good tonight, and that helped us a lot.”
Regarding Bingham, Coach Izzo went on to say, “Honestly I’ve been pretty proud of Marcus and his mental approach. Everything this summer was off the charts. He’s done a better job in everything. School. Basketball. Strength...So I am feeling better about Marcus because he’s done it now for five or six months. He’s been more consistent.”
One of the most impressive plays of the evening was a lob dunk by Bingham that brought the crowd in the Breslin Center to their feet:
One of our favorite sequences pic.twitter.com/zsu4ikLEuD— Michigan State Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) November 5, 2021
Sophomore point guard AJ Hoggard earned one of his five assists for that play to go along with his nine points on the evening. Hoggard got off to a slow start in the first half, however, and had not even attempted a shot from the field at halftime. Izzo mentioned that he seems to lack energy in the first half and Hoggard agreed.
“I wasn’t finding my rhythm in the first half,” Hoggard said. “Coach (Izzo) got on me a little bit, and it just turned around from there. I had to focus more in the second half and just get back to playing basketball like I know how.”
Part of the spark provided by Hoggard in the second half may have come from a unique lineup where MSU’s two main point guards — AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker — were on the floor at the same time. While Walker only put up four points on 2-for-3 shooting, he did lead the team in assists (six) and steals (four) with no turnovers.
As for the two point guard lineup, Hoggard clearly enjoyed it.
“I was telling Tyson (Walker), ‘Man, I love being out there with you,’ because it’s easy,” Hoggard said. “If he gets the outlet there first, then we’re running. If I get the outlet, he’s running, so it gives us more cheap buckets by getting behind the defense.
“It’s fun. He has a good feel for the game. I have a good feel for the game. I feel like it’s easy to put each other in position to score and others in position to score.”
As for Walker’s contribution, Coach Izzo has a simple message for the transfer from Northeastern.
“The only thing I was mad at Tyson about is that he’s passing up some shots,” Izzo said. “He gets his hands on more balls, he drives guys nuts, you know…He’s got great anticipation skills. And he’s very, very good defensively.”
Playing both point guards together was only part of the experimentation. The MSU staff also experimented with playing junior power forwards Malik Hall and Joey Hauser together. At times it was part of a big lineup where Hall was playing the small forward/wing position, Hauser was at the “four” and Bingham played center. At other times, Hauser and Hall played the power forward and center positions in a more “small ball” lineup.
As Coach Izzo sees it, the Spartans have basically “seven starters” with Hoggard and Hall expected to play big minutes off the bench. Coach Izzo also mentioned that he hopes to solidify an eight-man rotation (perhaps adding sophomore big man Julius Marble) with two other players (likely freshman guard Jaden Akins and sophomore center Mady Sissoko) who can play spot minutes when needed.
There was one more area where Izzo would like to see improvement, and that is in the area of player-level leadership and communication.
“I still don’t like the fact that our point guards aren’t communicating as well — that’s gonna take a little time,” Izzo said. He went on to say that he is still waiting for one of his players and not just the coaching staff to get mad about something like committing too many turnovers. Izzo added: “That’s progress that a team makes as they go.”
When I asked Coach Izzo about the leadership of his two captains, senior Gabe Brown (who had a quiet 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting to go along with six rebounds) and Hall (who posted just four points and six rebounds), Izzo was upbeat.
“Gabe has done an incredible job with his energy this year,” Izzo said. “Our walkthrough today was off-the-charts unbelievable.”
As for Hall, Izzo said: “Malik is more that quiet guy that understands everything...I think Malik can be a big key for this team because he can do a lot of things and play a lot of positions.
“As far as locker rooms and practice, Gabe and Malik are making progress,” Coach Izzo continued. “There’s not a million great leaders anymore...With Gabe I’ve been pleased all year, but Malik is starting to come (along as well.)”
In general, though, Coach Izzo seemed pleased with where his team is at right now.
“I really like what I have to work with,” Izzo said. “I like the guys and they’re good guys and good students. I’d like them to communicate a little more, I’d like them to be a little more demonstrative on each other, pushing each other. That’ll come. It’ll take some time, but it will come.”
Coach Izzo also commented that he thinks the 2021-2022 version of the Spartans is already better than last year’s team in the areas of defense, rebounding, running and maybe even leadership.
“We’ll find out shortly how much better,” Coach Izzo said. “I watched Kansas last night, things get a little more real now.”
The next time the Spartans take to the court, it will be Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden against the No. 3 ranked Kansas Jayhawks as a part of the Champions Classic in New York City. The players are looking forward to the challenge.
“I am super excited,” Hoggard said. “It’s about an hour-and-a-half from home, so it’s pretty much a home game for me and a home game for Tyson (Walker). It’s the first time for me to be playing in an NBA arena. I am just super excited to get out there with my brothers and compete.”
Christie is also excited about the opportunity.
“It’s going to be a really good test for us right away, and we want it,” Christie said. “We’re ready for the test and we want nothing more than to play the best teams in the country right away.”
The game against Kansas will tip off at 7:00 PM and will be televised nationally on ESPN.