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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Tom Izzo and the two-point guard lineup

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The recent commitment of Tre Holloman underlines the fact that Tom Izzo likes to use his playmakers together.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 10 North Florida at Michigan State
Two of many playmakers that thrived under Tom Izzo: Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans made noise on the recruiting trail recently, securing four-star playmaker Trejuan Holloman as the program’s first commitment for the 2022 recruiting class. For some, this move might have raised a few eyebrows as a quick look at the 2022-2023 roster chart already shows three point guards on the team in A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins and Tyson Walker. Now, barring any early departures or transfers, this is looking like a bit of a logjam — except that it really isn’t a logjam.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo always had a soft spot for two-point guard lineups and is now really putting some bodies behind that strategy. Our friend Sam Tyler already dove into this specific way of building a roster within his fantastic write up on Holloman and now we want to dive in even a little further. True to the motto: One point guard is good, two might be better.

Recent history shows that playing two point guards is the way to go

Ever since his lone national championship at Michigan State, Izzo was open to playing two playmakers together. Some guys by the name of Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell might have had something to do with that, and Izzo let other prominent combinations follow throughout the years. Drew Neitzel played a lot with Travis Walton, who then stood side by side in many battles with Kalin Lucas. Korie Lucious not only stepped up for the injured star, he also played plenty of minutes together with Lucas. Travis Trice lined up next to Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn and went all the way to a Final Four. Denzel Valentine was like a second point guard, too, and even when Izzo had the privilege of coaching the once-in-a-generation type talent of Cassius Winston, he paired him with the likes of Nairn or Foster Loyer from time to time (just not as often).

Now the thinking of using two playmakers as an advantage is of course a lot older than Izzo’s tenure and has been a part of basketball forever. But this strategy and roster makeup has put its stamp on the college basketball landscape more than ever in recent years, as the latest champions show.

Six of the last seven national champions featured a heavy dose of lineups featuring two point guards, proving the point that it certainly is a way to big time success on the NCAA level. UConn’s 2014 team under Kevin Ollie featured two diminutive guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, both more than capable of running the point. The Huskies were followed by a Duke Blue Devils team that ran out a senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones. Jay Wright’s first title with Villanova the next year came on the shoulders of Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono running the backcourt. After the Wildcats, North Carolina relied heavily on Joel Berry, but also had Nate Britt playing almost 20 minutes per night.

Then in 2018, it was Villanova again with Jalen Brunson as a junior, one of the few players in the last decade who truly handled the point guard position and the entire team all by himself. Virginia followed with plenty of lineups featuring two playmakers, mostly its team leader Ty Jerome and rookie Kihei Clark who played 26.8 minutes per game. Last, but not least, the Baylor Bears in 2021 made use of multiple point guards in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, both almost interchangeable on both ends of the court.

How two-point guard lineups can work… and how they can’t

Now unlike some of the other teams mentioned, Baylor had the luxury of really being able to mix and match its backcourt from game to game, even from timeout to timeout. With two-point guard lineups, especially on defense, that is not always the case. Mitchell was close to 6-foot-2 with long arms and a muscular frame, while Butler stood at 6-foot-3 and also possessed next level strength in his game. Size of course is always a big question mark when playing two point guards together at the same time as it can lead to defensive problems or struggles against taller backcourts. And if a team runs out two smallish players, at 6-foot-1 or smaller, then that lack of size has to be compensated somewhere.

Many teams didn’t necessarily worry about size within the backcourt itself, but rather filled out the lineup with players who made up for the squad’s lack of length at the guard position. Think of those UConn teams that always featured elite level athletes on the wing like Jeremy Lamb and long, menacing rim protectors inside like Amida Brimah. Same goes for programs like Duke, UNC or Villanova as those schools constantly not only had long, athletic players throughout their respective rosters, but they also possessed basically next level size inside year in and year out.

If your backcourt can’t play, defend or operate above the rim, you need other players that can. Otherwise you will get eaten alive inside, opposing guards can post your players up, they can shrink the court and make it hard to pass against ball pressure. A smaller backcourt can get a lot more aggressive defensively when there are long athletes behind it, especially if one of them is also a shot blocker. A defense with these types of players overall has more than enough presence and ability to limit operating space for any offense.

Michigan State, over the course of the last decade, didn’t always possess these types of players mentioned above in abundance, which made it hard to constantly play two playmakers together. Izzo’s point guards also were more on the smaller side in many years, which created some lineup disadvantages and problems for the overall balance of the team. Still, MSU also made this special type of a team work more often than not, and as recent recruiting developments show, will look to do so in the future as well.

The big advantages of having two point guards on the floor together

While playing two smaller playmakers who aren’t both clear cut NBA level talents certainly has its disadvantages there are many things that these lineups can offer to a team. Aside from the fact that you always want to get your best players on the floor, it never hurts to have numerous players on the team that can handle the ball. This is especially true in college where teams generally face more ball pressure than in the professional ranks, where some opponents run full court pressure almost every game or where the overall skill level throughout the roster sometimes makes it hard to get into the offense.

With two point guards it gets extremely hard for the defense to not only prevent the ball from coming smoothly up the court, but also to disrupt the offense while it gets into sets. On the road or in a tournament situation this can be extremely valuable and offers plenty of security for the entire team and the coaching staff. It also gives coaches and players a lot more creativity and freedom in the way they choose to attack the defense.

Another huge advantage is that point guards usually are generally capable to get into the paint by the way of their handle. Making a defense collapse and breaking opponents down off the dribble has become more and more important in the modern game. It puts pressure on the players to defend without fouling and also creates the needed space for the waiting three-point shooters. Many teams rely on the long ball as the basis for their entire game, but before the players can let it fly, space needs to be created first. Playmakers usually are capable of that, just like they can free up inside players for dump offs with their penetration.

Point guards usually have a great understanding of the offense in general, plus they usually possess quite a good feel for the tempo and flow of a game. Having multiple players to influence these things is extremely helpful and it makes it that much harder to defend a team. This proves especially true in specific situations. Think of the vaunted MSU fast break, which some teams try to counter by taking away the Spartans’ point guard immediately, sometimes with a double team. That of course becomes a lot harder when there is a second player to fall back on who can bring the ball up the court quickly and run everything just like the actual playmaker would have done.

How future two-point guard lineups might look for Michigan State

Having multiple, comparable players for one job can also help in terms of roster security. Injuries all of a sudden do not hit quite as hard as they would if only one clear cut starter can man the point, and it secures quite a bit of continuity on top of that. Mixing and matching all of his point guards will still be quite a challenge for Izzo, as it seems that by next year he will have four players on the roster who will all look for heavy minutes as playmakers. Now, of course, a lot can change from year to year, especially in today’s college basketball world. But as of now, none of Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins and Tre Holloman seem like players who shy away from a challenge, and they are all in some shape or form in Izzo’s long term plans. These players are all competitors hoping to earn a role.

A huge bonus for the Spartans is that as of now, it seems that outside of Walker all mentioned players should be able to handle spot minutes at the two-guard position. Even Walker might switch over there from time to time if he proves to be the electric scorer many people expect him to be. Akins stands at 6-foot-3, has a long wingspan and is an elite level athlete, which could actually make him available for a permanent position switch. But even if that happens, his ability to help out as a primary ball handler would only add to the versatility Izzo has created with his recent recruiting strategy. For a player like Hoggard, his outside shot definitely needs to improve from last season if he plans to play at shooting guard spot.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the roster will shape up for the Spartans as quite a few players will be leaving in the next couple of years. Izzo, though, has recently shown a lot more interest in long, athletic wings and has certainly gotten quite a few of these types of players. Shot blockers always had value at Michigan State as well, and that should continue in the future. Recruiting numerous talented players for the same position, all of them with expectations for themselves, might create a little logjam, sure. But on a personal level, Izzo should be more than capable of handling any situations where they may be drama, and it will also cover up a situation if one of his recruits doesn’t turn out the way he envisioned. Two point guards are much better than one in that case, and four of them offer a lot of interesting options.

Maybe even one that adds Michigan State on that long list of champions that operated with multiple playmakers.