Michigan State fans are riding high these days, thanks to a gridiron defensive mastermind from Cleveland, Ohio, who has taken the Michigan State football program by storm, tucked (or Tuckered?) it under his arm like a running back does with a ball and hasn’t looked back ever since. While Mel Tucker and his crew are grabbing the big headlines these days, the upcoming basketball season is just about a month away for the Spartans.
Tom Izzo jumped into the sports pages recently, too, adding a young gentleman by the name of Jaxon Kohler to the 2022 recruiting class. The newest Spartan warrior figures to be a kid who one day will grab Michigan State’s post offense in his big mitts and take care of that part of the game like those NBA center stars in the 1990s used to do. Until next year, though, when Kohler sets foot on campus, Izzo will have to figure out a different way to operate inside the paint and find players who can play with their back to the basket.
It has always been a staple of MSU under Izzo, and the recruitment of Kohler indicates that it will be in the foreseeable future as well. The 2021-2022 season might be a year, though, where Izzo and his coaches have to get creative when generating true and traditional post offense.
Where the Spartans come from
For many years, Izzo has used traditional back-to-the-basket big men even when the game itself mostly seems to have moved on from this type of offense. Whether or not dominant post players can still have a role in today’s college basketball landscape and offer something potentially unique and extremely reliable is not the question. Names like Zach Randolph, Paul Davis or Nick Ward come to mind, among many others who gave Izzo’s teams someone who could always present a target inside, and someone who large parts of an entire offensive system could be ran through. They put enormous pressure on opposing defenses, forced many opponents to make a maybe fatal decision in terms of double-teaming and they often ignited a secondary ball movement that has grown to be another staple of Spartan teams over the years. That these types of players also stand for a certain physical brand of offensive basketball is something many in East Lansing have cherished over the years as it is deeply entrenched in the Spartan DNA.
With that said, recently Izzo struggled a bit to really find this type of player, or maybe he didn’t really look for them. His latest dominant post player, Xavier Tillman, was very effective in the low post, but seemingly never felt 100 percent comfortable operating with his back to the basket. Despite some great moves, tremendous footwork and extremely advanced passing instincts the current Memphis Grizzlies player often moved into the high post and went on from there. That worked out fairly well for Tillman, we might add.
Last year’s team did not have one guy who was the clear cut first post option, though. Izzo instead relied on a mix of players inside to initiate scoring and movement from the inside. Maybe his best post-up player from last season was do it all forward Aaron Henry, who now has moved on to the NBA. He often times asked for the ball like a traditional post player would do, and he constantly presented a target for his teammates. Being the team leader and one of the main ball handlers on the squad, though, Henry’s time spent inside was limited in the end, though.
Where the Spartans want to go
There will be plenty of extremely smart people in the game of basketball who will scorn at the idea of even carrying a true post player on the roster. Many modern systems value other things and demand plenty of other skills from the players at hand. Even Izzo and his staff have certainly not always needed or relied on a back-to-the-basket presence for 40 minutes. They just as much value their fast break, their motion, overall passing game and variations of pick and roll situations, all within a rather structured system.
That system always goes hand-in-hand with the players that the coaches have at their disposal, and this is certainly true for Tom Izzo as well. He has shown a great knack for adjusting his strategy to his personnel, and has always shown a willingness to reset his own priorities for the greater good of the team. When a certain set, player or strategy is working, Izzo will rely on it heavily and will then build around it like he used to do most recently with the pick and roll between Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.
Now finding some resemblance of a true post option would still come in handy for the Spartans next season. Having someone who can provide highly efficient, reliable and steady offense could be extremely important for what looks to be a roster that misses a true go to guy offensively. Even if it won’t be provided by one player alone, the willingness to get people down low and have the offense work from the inside out figures to open up many other areas of the playbook. The shooters get more efficient, drivers can attack a defense that is potentially on the move, and an opponent getting into foul trouble would also have positive effects for the Spartans. With the Big Ten being one of the more physical conferences in the entire country, MSU should look to match some of the brawn thrown at them from the likes of Illinois or Michigan and counter it with some physical inside presence of their own.
Who might provide the post offense for the 2021-2022 Spartans
As already mentioned, Michigan State won’t find its main post offense from just one player next season. The Spartans just do not have that kind of player on the roster who owns the specific skill set or the physical maturity that it takes to park himself inside for 40 minutes. There is no Ward coming through the door anytime soon, and while it would be nice to have that type of player in your back pocket, others can step up and also provide much needed presence underneath the hoop.
The first guy who comes to mind might be Joey Hauser, who started out well last year, but faded with his overall game down the stretch, even losing his starting position at some point (mostly because of his performance on defense). Hauser is a highly-skilled offensive player who is able to provide a target inside. His post moves and his foot work are advanced, yet there is no doubt that he feels more comfortable in the role of a stretch four. His outside shot is his biggest strength, and he should be most helpful for MSU if he can space the floor as a big man. He would also create space for some of his potential front-court partners that way.
The true centers that could play alongside Hauser or any other four-man – Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko – both will have a lot of different tasks next year. Most importantly they will have to provide elite level rim protection and rebounding. Neither of these two figures to really get the ball a lot inside and then be asked to do something with it. Sissoko should still be too raw for that (it might come for him later in his career) and Bingham just doesn’t have the strength to constantly earn himself deep position, thus laying the groundwork for some effective post offense. Although, expect Bingham to be at least somewhat improved in that regard this season. Bingham and Sissoko not really being go to options makes the lineup management a challenge as MSU looks for spacing on the one hand, yet also wants to operate with a presence inside.
Two other players still should see plenty of opportunities with their back to the basket, especially since they offer a lot of versatility in terms of their roles: Malik Hall and Julius Marble. Neither player has really taken a hold of a big time role in recent years, but they might have to do it this season in order for Michigan State to really compete for bigger things nationally, and Hall recently being voted as a team captain likely means that will be the case for him. Both Hall and Marble have really flashed tremendous post-up ability in recent years, with either of them having absolute highlight buckets that could find their way into any post-game instruction video. They are capable of holding their position deep, have strong legs and are athletic enough to finish over most opponents. They are crafty, have a good touch and they have a good feel for where their man is behind them.
All of that makes Hall and Marble capable of providing constant post offense for the Spartans. There are question marks with them as well, sure. Marble throughout his first two years in the program has always been a solid to very talented offensive player, but his defense has been a constant problem. Until he figures that end of the court out, he will not see extended playing time. The same goes for Malik Hall who has been a better defender than Marble, but has struggled with foul trouble and consistency. He, like Hauser, also has the ability to score with his jump shot, and mainly parking him in the post would take away one of his biggest advantages he has, especially over taller players.
Many of Michigan State’s big men are good screeners and very mobile for their size, which could lead to numerous sets freeing up players inside. That would take away the burden of backing opponents down every trip, and it would make the team more versatile. It will be interesting how Izzo utilizes his big men next season, as all of them bring a lot of good things to the table, but nobody has proved to be a complete player down low yet. That might change this upcoming year, though.
If it doesn’t change, Michigan State might struggle with its post offense until Jaxon Kohler gets up to speed in a few years, or someone else comes aboard. Either way, Izzo should find a way to generate plenty of offense with his team. Not that Izzo ever needs it, but just in case, some guy by the name of Mel Tucker is just a few doors away and would know a thing or two about physical play.