On Wednesday night at the Breslin Center, Michigan State enjoyed a relatively comfortable 73-64 win over the Louisville Cardinals as a part of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The victory by the Spartans helped the Big Ten to win the challenge for the third consecutive year.
In the press conference following the victory, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was obviously pleased with the win, but Izzo is never completely satisfied in early December.
“If you told me we’d be up 20 at home against Louisville, I would have been tickled to death,” Izzo said.
Coach Izzo went on to say, “We did a lot of good things but those turnovers are just something I’m going to keep working on...We got some things done but it was a struggle in doing them.”
Turn, Turn, Turn
While the Spartans led the Cardinals for most of the game and won comfortably, it is hard to look at the turnover numbers and not be disappointed. This is a problem that has plagued the Spartans for several years.
“It’s hard to feel good when you turn it over 19 times,” Izzo said. “It is frustrating, I’m sure, for our fans. It’s frustrating probably for players. It’s definitely frustrating for the coach.”
It is clear that the turnovers have been a topic of discussion in the Spartan locker room and that it is a topic that the players take very seriously.
“You’re not going to beat really good teams turning the ball over like that,” junior forward and captain Malik Hall said following the game. “I think that’s our next level that we have to reach, and we have to mentally understand that we can’t turn the ball over that much against really great teams if you want to be a championship team. We are going to have to do better.”
But why are the turnovers happening? Some have argued that MSU turns the ball over too much because of the emphasis on getting the ball into transition. But Coach Izzo pointed out that most of the Spartans’ turnovers have been happening in the half court setting. So, Izzo has a different theory.
“I think we’re all going a little too fast,” Izzo said. “Gabe (Brown) got two or three traveling calls on a break again. Everybody’s got to slow down a little bit. ‘Play quick, but don’t hurry’ is the saying and we’ve got to do a better job of that.
“I don’t think they’re undisciplined,” Izzo continued. “I just think they’re trying to do too many things that they can’t do. They are trying to go at a speed that they can’t go.”
The players who were available following the game seemed to agree with Izzo. They all expressed that the turnover problem is more of a matter of execution, which is correctable. Moreover, both Izzo and his players pointed out that even with the 19 turnovers, the Spartans still beat a solid ACC team handily. What would the final score have been like with half that many giveaways?
“If we figure it out with the turnovers and with the offense, I think we’re a very dangerous team,” junior point guard Tyson Walker said.
“Just knowing that we’ve got a lot to improve on and get better at and that our ceiling is high makes us feel good,” sophomore point guard A.J. Hoggard said.
“I’m happy where we are as far as our record,” Izzo said. “I am not happy where we are as far as our play. If we can correct just one thing (turnovers), we’re gonna do a lot better and that’s going to happen.”
Slap the Floor
One of the reasons that Coach Izzo and his players are so optimistic about the future of this team is the way that they are playing on defense. According to the latest efficiency data from Ken Pomeroy, the Spartans currently have the No. 2 rated defense in the country.
“I thought our defense probably won us the game,” Izzo said. Coach was especially impressed with the way freshman Max Christie defended, especially considering that the former McDonald’s All-American struggled to find his shot.
“Max (Christie) did an unbelievable job,” Izzo said. “I thought the defense that he played was phenomenal.
“It’s amazing what he’s done so far,” Izzo added later of Christie. “For 90 percent of scorers, their scoring dictates their defense, and he hasn’t done that one time all year. For a freshmen, that’s almost unbelievable. If you watch him; he is in lockdown mode.”
Christie wasn’t the only freshman who was in “lockdown mode” on Wednesday night. Hall was also impressed with the play of freshman guard Jaden Akins, who scored 10 points in just 11 minutes and who continues to show his very high-level athleticism on the court.
“Jaden (Akins) stepping up and playing a lot of defense, it’s big time,” Hall said. “I think it’s great for our team. It makes our team even deeper when you have young guys stepping up and doing what they need to do.”
Coach Izzo agrees with Hall:
“Jaden is going to be electric because he is an athlete. That guy is as smart as a whip and he just understands things. As he continues to play and guard the world, he’s going to be a hell of a player here.”
When it comes to defense, Walker even let it slip that the team has a saying that they use to stay focused.
“Our saying is ‘Cut people’s water off.’ Cut it off. That’s it, right there.” Walker said.
The win over the Cardinals also demonstrated another advantage that the Spartans seem to have in 2021: versatility. Hall probably said it best:
“Anybody on our team can have a good game. If one person isn’t doing so well the next person steps up.”
On this night, Hall stepped up, as he led the team in scoring with 15 points, including shooting a perfect three-for-three from deep.
Hall’s teammates clearly agree and would add that Malik adds more than just scoring. His emerging leadership is also making an impact on the team.
“He’s very versatile,” senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. said of Hall. “I think that if he’s playing the way that he’s playing now, we can make a long run. He’s really unselfish. Even if he doesn’t score 10 points, he’s the first guy to get off the bench to cheer us all on.”
As for Coach Izzo, he would like to see more consistency out of Hall, but overall likes the direction of his game.
“He is starting to play with some emotion, which has been a problem for him,” Izzo said. “He’s starting to play with a little more passion. He’s always had it, but he doesn’t say much. Now, maybe that he is a captain that has helped out a little bit.”
But basketball isn’t just about scoring. Last year the Spartans lacked a true point guard, which eventually limited the ceiling of the team. On Wednesday night, Walker was credited with 10 assists, which is the most by any Spartan since Cassius Winston did it in November of 2019.
“It’s actually crazy,” Walker said. “This is actually my first time ever getting 10 assists since high school so I was very excited for that.”
At the same time, Walker only put up two points, both of which came from the free throw line. When asked about this shift from being a scorer at Northeastern to more of a facilitator at Michigan State, Walker was clearly not concerned.
“That’s fine,” Walker said. “ It doesn’t really bother me. Last year, I just did what was needed. So now this year passing is what is needed. I was never really a scorer until last year. That’s when I really showed that I could score, but before that I was always passing.”
Despite the strong play of Hall, Akins and Walker, Coach Izzo still feels that several of his other players have more to give. Christie struggled with his shot early, but he eventually finished the game with 11 points.
“We are still having trouble getting Max (Christie) the ball, but people are taking him away,” Izzo said. “We tried to give it to him to handle a little bit more and that worked some, but they’re also taking that away so we just keep working.”
Ultimately, Coach Izzo is confident that Christie will find his shot, as will junior forward Joey Hauser, who is also currently in a shooting slump.
“I know this will sound crazy, but I still think him (Christie) and Hauser are my two best shooters,” Izzo said. “Someday it is going to come. It comes in practice.”
Coach Izzo added, “I think Joey is a little frustrated...It’s the guys that aren’t frustrated that don’t care. So I am glad he’s frustrated. We’ve just got to work through it.”
If the Spartans can clean up the turnovers, maintain the current level of defensive intensity, and get Christie and Hauser out of their current slump, the Big Ten and the rest of the nation better watch out.
Odds and ends
Here are some of the other topics that were touched on during the post-game press conference.
- Coach Izzo opened the press conference by offering his condolences to the community of Oxford in regards to the tragic school shooting that occurred at the Oxford High School earlier this week. “I hope every Spartan sends their thoughts and prayers to them,” Izzo said.
- It was revealed in the press conference that Malik Hall had tweaked his ankle in the Baylor game and was still not at 100 percent on Wednesday night. “I’m not gonna lie, I was hurting at the beginning,” Hall said. “But once I started to get loose, it was a little better. So it’s not bad.”
- In regards to the play of Joey Hauser, Izzo also gave some insight that every Spartan and college sports fans needs to pay attention to. “I think last year our own fans hurt him,” Izzo said. “Sometimes the media hurt him. We have to understand that some kids are not able to handle all the abuse, and a couple of them left because of it. So I would just say that let me coach the guys and you guys write about the team. But you never know what’s going on with each individual player.”
- On a lighter note, Izzo went biblical on the media as part of a discussion of team depth and his desire to have two functional players at every position, which would enable the Spartans to play more uptempo. He drew a comparison to another Big Ten school. “I think one of the strengths of Purdue if you look at them there they are Noah’s Ark,” Izzo said. “They have two of everything.”
- As for the problem of stepping out of bounds, Coach Izzo joked about a possible creative solution. “I might put one of them dog fences in and when they step out of bounds they get zapped,” Izzo said. “But, then I’d get sued for that so I can’t do that.”
The Spartans will return to action on Saturday, Dec 4 at the Breslin Center against the Toledo Rockets (6-1). The game will tip at 5 p.m. Eastern Time and it will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of Spartan basketball. Go Green.