Armed Forces Classic Game Info/How to Watch:
Where: USS Abraham Lincoln, San Diego, California
When: Friday, Nov. 11, 2022 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV/Streaming (within the U.S.): ESPN
Michigan State (1-0), No. 32 (Kenpom)
After a season-opening win against Northern Arizona, the Michigan State men’s basketball team begins a daunting stretch of games that will rival even the 2001-2002 season for level of difficulty (that season saw the Spartans play six top-25 opponents in the non-conference season).
In the next stretch of games, Michigan State will play Gonzaga (No. 2) and Kentucky (No. 4) on neutral courts, Villanova (No. 16) at home, Alabama (No. 20) at the Phil Knight Invitational, the winner (or loser) of Oregon (No. 21) and UCONN (the second highest non-25 vote-recipient) at the PKI, and, if the Spartans win those first two games, most likely North Carolina (No. 1) in the PKI championship. All of that comes before traveling to play a Notre Dame team in South Bend with a ton of returning talent and a likely first-round guard in JJ Starling.
In other words, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo may very well have set up a run of six-ranked opponents in a row followed by a true road game against a veteran team with NBA talent. That sentence is remarkable, and the prospect is truly exciting: while this team has flaws and areas of concern, I would not be surprised to see the Spartans emerge from this gauntlet of seven games with a 5-2 record.
With Gonzaga as the opening heavyweight, let’s preview the showdown:
Michigan State Depth Chart:
1 - A.J. Hoggard (6’4” Jr.), Tre Holloman (6’2” Fr.)
2 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Sr.), Jaden Akins (6’4” So.)
3 - Malik Hall (6’8” Sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’6” So.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (6’9” Jr.), Jaxon Kohler (6’9” Fr.), Carson Cooper (6’11” Fr.)
Despite somewhat frustrating box-scores, Hoggard and Walker controlled the game against Northern Arizona. Walker’s quick hands, consistent ball-movement on offense, and second-half scoring paced the team throughout the game, and Hoggard’s passing tour de force, physical paint scoring, and second-half pace control shut the door on the Lumberjacks.
Off the bench, Holloman and Akins demonstrated their “floors” this season: Holloman’s defined by lightning quick hands and feet, tremendous pace-pushing in transition and a knack for play-making on both ends. For his part, Akins’ first moments on the court this season demonstrated his tremendous isolation space-creation and jump-shooting ability, and his capacity for top-notch perimeter defense. As Akins gets his legs back under him, he and Holloman will form one of the best reserve-guard duos in the entire country.
On the wing and at the forward spots, Hall, Brooks and Hauser combined to punish the Lumberjacks for leaving them open — shooting a scorching 9-for-18 from three-point range combined — while pacing the Spartans on the glass (18 rebounds between them) and helping pressurize the Northern Arizona defense all game long. At the center spot, Sissoko, Kohler and Cooper provided exactly what they needed to: a bit of scoring and play-finishing (11 points), solid rebounding (15 rebounds) and only three turnovers all game. More importantly, they helped keep a lid on the Lumberjacks’ centers.
While this win did not have a lot of high-flying dunks, or consistent domination, it graced Spartan fans with a shockingly good turnover differential (nine Spartan turnovers compared with 13 from the Lumberjacks) and a good defensive free-throw rate. These two numbers will dictate the success of this team all season (along with defensive rebounding). Teams with lower talent-ceilings cannot hurt themselves, and, in the opening contest, the Spartans did not.
No. 2 Gonzaga (1-0), No. 3 (Kenpom)
1 - Rasir Bolton (6’3” Sr.), Dominik Harris (6’3” Jr.)
2 - Nolan Hickman (6’2” So.), Malachi Smith (6’4” Sr.)
3 - Julian Strawther (6’7” Jr.), Hunter Sallis (6’5” So.)
4 - Anton Watson (6’8” Sr.),
5 - Drew Timme (6’10” Sr.), Efton Reid (7’0” So.), Ben Gregg (6’10” Fr.)
Gonzaga destroyed North Florida by a final score of 104-63 to begin the 2022-2023 campaign. Gonzaga revolves around the sensational All-American Drew Timme, whose fast-paced post-attacks and unrelenting assault on the paint will absolutely challenge the Spartan centers and, at times, overwhelm them.
Timme took 40 percent of Gonzaga’s shots when he was on the court in the season opener, with most of them being in the paint (he has improved his push-shot and begun to extend his range toward the three-point line). While Timme is an excellent ball-handler and a good passer — although he finished with only two assists against North Florida — he is far more dangerous as a play-finisher, so MSU’s help-defenders will need to force Timme to become a play-maker.
On the perimeter, Bolton, Hickman, Smith and Sallis push the pace (with an early No. 1 ranking in pace of play for Gonzaga), and can finish well in the paint. Bolton is the real danger man as a three-point shooter, so staying attached to him will prove essential. The real engines of this team, however, are the forwards — Strawther and Watson. While Timme will remain the hub of the offense and creates havoc for defenses with the guards, these two forwards, and their ability to finish in the paint and from the mid-range, push this team toward greatness on offense.
While Gonzaga may not end the season in elite territory on defense, the early returns from the Bulldogs’ opener against the Ospreys bode well, and portend a team that will pressure opponents far more effectively than in recent seasons, leading to turnovers and steals (Gonzaga had a staggering 15 steals in its opener). Mark Few knows how to coach, and this team’s offense will hum all season; if the Bulldogs can defend and play tough against more physical opponents (Strawther and Watson are the keys here, again), then Gonzaga can win a championship.
Hoggard, Walker and Holloman will need to be superb defensively against Bolton and Hickman, who will do most of the offensive initiation. Akins will hopefully be a bit more settled, physically, than he was in the opener because his matchup against Malachi Smith will be crucial — he has to give as good as he gets, and cannot get hung up on screens, or cross-matched in transition.
Expect Timme to have a relative field day (at least a 20-point and 10-rebound performance), but if Sissoko, Kohler and Cooper (who will definitely play) can force him to take 15 or more shots to get those 20 points, then that is a win: if Timme is efficient with his offense, then expect trouble.
Watson and Strawther versus Hauser and Hall will determine the game, but keep an eye out for the scoring-duel between Sallis and Brooks when both teams go smaller on the wing off the bench. Watson and Strawther are better athletes, and probably more talented in some ways, but Hauser and Hall should be able to leverage their experience and exploit their shooting gravity to great effect. If Hauser, Hall and Brooks have good shooting nights on the carrier (who knows how that is going to go...), then the game will come down to how well the Spartans can defend Timme (helping and recovering when he passes), rebound and run, and how well the Spartan guards limit turnovers.
I expect Hoggard to have a big game in this one — his physicality will be essential for warping the Gonzaga defense. Timme will likely go for more than 20 points and 10 boards, as mentioned, but I think the waves of bodies may be able to slow him down later in the game if the Michigan State centers can hang with him for the first 30 minutes of the contest. The big key will be for the Spartan bigs to crash the glass aggressively on offense to slow down the Gonzaga fast-break.
Expect a close one by the end of the contest, with Gonzaga ultimately prevailing in an encouraging contest for the Spartan faithful.