In vintage Tom Izzo fashion, the Michigan State men’s basketball team started their 2022-2023 campaign with a schedule as hard as Charles Oakley’s biceps.
Nobody would have blamed you as a fan if you were a bit worried going into this season as the team was surrounded by plenty of question marks and hadn’t installed gigantic confidence among the fanbase in recent years. Well, consider many of these questions answered in a classic Izzo way, at least early on.
An experienced, hard-nosed Michigan State squad brought Gonzaga and Kentucky — ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the nation, respectively — down to the wire and even pulled out a spectacular win against the Wildcats in the Champions Classic that certainly cost the Green and White faithful plenty of nails.
You can’t help but feel great about where Michigan State is right now, even if not everything is as rosy as it might look today. We take a deep dive into where the Spartans stand after their early gauntlet and before another stretch of games that will once again put everything to the test that they have to offer.
WHERE MICHIGAN STATE HAS EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS
The center position
The Spartans had plenty of back-court talent coming back this season in Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins, but their front-court was a big question mark going into the year. The center position especially figured to be a potential issue with only seldom used junior Mady Sissoko plus the freshmen Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper standing in the line for the starting spot.
But, boy, did Sissoko prove his doubters wrong so far this year. He looks like a completely different player who has grown into his body, turning it into the menacing machine everyone hoped it could be when he chose the Spartans out of high school.
The 6-foot-9 pivot big man has battled two of the best bigs in the nation with Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tchiebwe and more than held his own against them.
On top of that, Sissoko actually impacted the game on both ends of the floor with his tremendous length and athleticism. His enthusiasm and energy have been striking, and with his presence, he gives Michigan State a completely different dimension on the glass, as a lob target and as a rim protector.
Now year-in and year-out, Izzo is known for having teams that even at their worst are usually pretty solid defensively. The old coach will only crack a real smile, though, when he can watch a group as feisty as this year’s team in the first few games.
The Spartans held both Gonzaga and Kentucky to around 40 percent shooting, did a tremendous job at limiting dribble penetration and embraced the challenge of meeting a big time force ahead of them with a tremendous force of their own. You can tell by the constant communication, the hustle and the aggressive approach against the ball that these Spartans love to protect their own basket.
Offensive rebounding still remains a bit of an issue at times, but some of that can be attributed to specific circumstances. Sissoko’s foul trouble limited him big time against Gonzaga in the second half, and Izzo didn’t trust any of his younger bigs in the moment. It was a bit of the same against Kentucky even though Sissoko managed to stay on the floor that time. It will be interesting how MSU deals with smaller, quicker teams going forward as the Spartans mostly rely on a bigger lineup with Malik Hall at the three-spot.
Even with his nightmarish game against Gonzaga, Hauser had a terrific start to his 217th year of college basketball (actually it’s his sixth). Twice, he has been Michigan State’s leading scorer and his 23 points against Kentucky were something that he usually never does – plays big against big opponents.
As a player, he still is a defensively-challenged stretch-four, but he has approached his shooting endeavors with a lot more confidence, and to his credit, has also took it up a notch on occasions inside. In the second half versus the Wildcats, for example, Hauser twice followed up a miss in traffic to convert on a big-time tip-in through contact, something you would not have seen from him in prior years.
Referencing Hauser’s nature as a shooter shouldn’t come across as a negative, it is of tremendous importance for this team, which figures to rely heavily on its three-point shots. By providing great floor spacing, the graduate senior forward creates the much-needed space inside that many of his teammates need to operate — for example, Jaden Akins as a penetrator or Malik Hall in the post.
Hauser has also done well as a rebounder, which is nothing new for him. As one of the reasons for his increased confidence, Hauser has stated that he has been inspired by his brother, Sam Hauser, who is playing pretty well for the Boston Celtics in the NBA.
WHERE MICHIGAN STATE HAS MATCHED EXPECTATIONS
Boy, did the lead man had to endure some criticism in recent years, and he will be the first one to tell you that some of it was well-deserved. Of course, Izzo’s decision-making about the roster this past offseason was questioned by many fans and pundits as well.
With Izzo’s star-studded recruiting class of 2023, he has eased plenty of worries on that front moving forward, and if there were any regarding his in-game coaching, consider those concerns as far away as the Upper Peninsula is from let’s say Tasmania. You can tell that Izzo is energized not only by people doubting him, but also by having an unranked team at his disposal that features plenty of things he traditionally loves: upperclassmen, hard-working guys who can be described as program players and experience all across the board.
Izzo’s late out of bounds plays against Kentucky were a thing of beauty, as were some of the defensive rotations that his team threw at their opponent. In typical Izzo fashion, he has credited his assistants, but make no mistake about it, Tom himself came to play this year.
More than any strategic ideas, it should be noted how ready, how prepared and how utterly motivated his team looked in the Armed Forces Classic and the Champions Classic. It should stay with them the rest of the year, and these games will certainly come in handy somewhere in the back of the players’ heads when they face clutch situations down the line.
WHERE MICHIGAN STATE HASN’T MET EXPECTATIONS
In the back-court
Looking at the shooting numbers of the Spartans’ perimeter players, you would never think that they would have been able to play as well as they did. Tyson Walker has been the least bad of the bunch shooting wise with 38.7 percent from the field, while Jaden Akins has only managed to connect on an abysmal 28 percent of his field goals. Hold my beer, says A.J. Hoggard, who’s shooting an earth-shattering 27.3 percent from the field. In short: The guards in general haven’t lived up to the quite lofty expectations that there were before the season.
Fantastic 2OT from Tyson Walker ending with this perfect lob to Mady Sissoko which is going to end up getting Michigan State the win over Kentucky! pic.twitter.com/SpjjoeWhZY— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) November 16, 2022
After last season’s tournament run, everyone expected Walker and Hoggard to be a dynamic duo. but at least Hoggard hasn’t held up his end of the deal. Walker — while going through some droughts — has taken over late in games and made plenty of clutch plays in the last two contests. Akins still is a bit rusty from his offseason knee surgery and has only shown flashes of his tremendous potential.
In this overall negative, there is a huge positive, though. All of these guys, to a certain extent, have proven that they can play a lot better in the past, and once they do, Michigan State will have a back-court engine humming as loud as anyone’s in the country.
This might seem a bit unfair at first and should definitely be taken with a grain of salt this early, but if the three freshmen have proven once thing beside their obvious talent, it is that they still have a few Izzo practices to endure before he really trusts them.
For Carson Cooper and Tre Holloman, that was expected — neither of them figured to be way up there in the rotation. Cooper just isn’t ready for this level physically or mentally yet, and Holloman appears to be thinking a bit too much. Once he slows down in his head, though, he should carve out a nice role off bench sooner rather than later.
Now for Jaxon Kohler, it is a little bit of a different story. It is not that he has played badly — he has been mostly OK so far, especially considering his youth. You can already see the advanced footwork, his great fundamentals and everything else that was promised before the season. But there were quite a few voices who could see him challenging Sissoko for the starting center spot and that won’t happen anytime soon.
Kohler’s foot speed and overall fitness isn’t there yet, and by going up a level, it is hard for him to overcome such deficiencies even if he has such a well-rounded game. The future should be bright for him, but for now, he might be looking at a steeper learning curve than many expected him to have.
The Michigan State Spartans clearly are in a great place right now, which is also needed as MSU has more big time opponents looming on the horizon. You can just sense, though, that this group might be another one of these typical Izzo squads that start the year with fewer expectations only to outperform them with heart, determination and senior leadership.
That doesn’t mean that this team doesn’t have shortcomings, however. Depth could be a huge problem for the Spartans down the road, as Izzo hasn’t been confident enough to expand his rotation early on, which led to foul trouble and some problematic situations. Outside shooting, while always expected to be streaky, might become an issue down the line if Hoggard and Akins don’t prove to be better shooters. Being dependent on Sissoko is another thing that could bite this group where the sun doesn’t shine. He already is so important to everything MSU does on both ends of the court that him getting into foul trouble regularly could lead to some rough nights.
With all that said, the Spartans already have proven that they can not only hang with the best teams in the country, but they have already proven they can beat them, too. Sure, Kentucky and Gonzaga in a few weeks might not look as dominant as expected now, yet both teams have a bunch of proven commodities on their respective rosters.
Michigan State has played in two big time environments and performed admirably as the underdog. With Akins only coming back from injury, some seldom used freshmen on the bench and Hoggard underperforming in comparison to his sophomore year, there is a tremendous amount of upside all across the board. The Spartans are far from a finished product now in November...which also is another hallmark of the vintage Izzo way.