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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Dynamics of a dynamic backcourt

The Spartans’ backcourt should lead the way this year and be a tremendous strength for Michigan State.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 18 Villanova at Michigan State
Yup, Michigan State’s backcourt will be something to watch this year, Tyson Walker.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The players in the backcourt are supposed to be the backbone of this year’s Michigan State team, the engine that makes the machine go. They are experienced, battle-tested and also young and exuberant.

Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins and even, to a lesser extent, Tre Holloman received quite a bit of fanfare over the course of the summer. In the first few games it took them a while to really live up to those lofty expectations, but their immense potential is already evident. And it could be one of the deciding factors for the Spartans throughout the year.

Individual profiles in Michigan State’s backcourt

Walker, Hoggard, Akins and Holloman all bring different attributes to the table, which gives head coach Tom Izzo a lot of flexibility with his lineup combinations.

Tyson Walker

Walker is a classic combo guard with a dangerous jumper, great handles and plenty of creativity. His smallish frame makes it hard for him to finish inside at times, but he makes up for it with plenty of toughness. This demeanor also helps him on the defensive end where he is a true ballhawk and a prideful lead defender. After struggling with passiveness in the beginning of his MSU career, he has really started to tighten his grip on a bigger role, especially in crunch time.

A.J. Hoggard

Hoggard is a bullish lead guard who possesses a big frame, thrives on physicality and plays through plenty of contact. The Pennsylvania native isn’t a great outside shooter, but still has a knack for getting inside the paint almost at will. He has natural point guard instincts, is a good rebounder and can be a tremendous fast-break point guard. He also endears himself to the coaching staff with a bulldog mentality on defense, often lobbying to defend the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.

Jaden Akins

Akins played plenty of point guard in high school, but is rounding into a full time off-ball guard at the next level. The long and lengthy athlete can jump out of the gym and uses his quick first step regularly to gain an advantage on the offensive end. He is a solid shooter who possesses a well rounded game that allows him to create his own shot. As a rebounder he can do plenty of damage and his defense was a calling card for him as a freshman. Of course, Akins recently underwent surgery on his left foot and seemed to aggravate this injury last Friday against Villanova, but he shouldn’t miss too much time, if any.

Tre Holloman

The youngest backcourt member for the Spartans will have a hard time to find minutes as a freshman this year, but it’s not because of a lack of ability. Holloman has a plus wingspan and can be an absolute terror on the defensive end. He plays a lot bigger than he is listed height (6-foot-2), is a creative playmaker on offense and possesses true leadership skills. He also has the potential to play both guard positions and turn himself into a complete kind of player.

A special mix of backcourt players for MSU

What’s striking about Michigan State’s 2022-2023 backcourt is the point guard background each player possesses. What’s even more striking that basically all four members of the group are also capable of playing the two-guard position from time to time.

This circumstance makes the Spartans not only very resilient against any kind of ball pressure, it also allows them to switch between positions regularly throughout a game. That makes it extremely difficult for opponents to really key on certain players.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 18 Villanova at Michigan State
A.J. Hoggard is contributing in a variety of ways for Michigan State.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The starting duo of Hoggard and Walker really found itself as a combination late last season as they were the keys to Michigan State almost upsetting heavily favored Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Both complement each other extremely well. Walker can space the floor with his deep shooting and creates the necessary room for Hoggard to operate inside.

Whenever Walker becomes more of a scorer, his backcourt mate in Hoggard is more than capable of running the point and operate as a floor general himself. Both of them can initiate the fast break, which makes it harder for opponents to press MSU’s vaunted transition offense.

Akins won’t see that many minutes at the point guard position if at all, but he is versatile to seamlessly enter the aforementioned combination. Once he gets his legs under him again and recovers fully from his aforementioned offseason surgery, he can be a dangerous finisher in the areas that his playmakers open up.

Holloman is a bit of a wild card at this point, but down the road, MSU should be able to get anything from him that it needs. In his first year, that most likely will be hounding defense, some spot minutes as a playmaker and the occasional hustle play. Getting some experience this year is vital for Holloman’s development.

The endless possibilities for Tom Izzo

Due to the versatility of his backcourt players, Izzo will have plenty of options to choose from this season. Having two players with point guard capabilities on the court at the same time has always been something that Izzo would like to go to. The historic examples of that include Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell, Drew Neitzel and Travis Walton, Walton, Korie Lucious and Kalin Lucas or Lourawls Nairn and Travis Trice.

Hoggard and Walker are truly interchangeable in terms of their roles even if they both possess vastly different games. Izzo can react directly to lineup or strategic changes of the opposition without a substitution and he has full trust in both his playmakers to take on responsibility at any point during a game. He can pair either Walker or Hoggard with Akins, who is probably the most natural off-guard from the group, and with his finishing ability, can really thrive next to the two great passers.

One option for Izzo will also be to play all of his three main guards together against certain matchups. It most likely won’t work against most teams, but it is certainly a way of combating guard heavy, smallish lineups with players who want to run a lot. Akins should feel more than at home on the wing as a backdoor threat and he can drive to either side when he gets the ball in the corners.

When Izzo wants to rough it up a little, he can play Holloman and Hoggard together — a potentially fist-fighting backcourt that really gets physical with the opposition.

Akins and Walker are both good defenders in their own right and are a main reason for MSU’s strong perimeter defense to start the season, but Holloman and Hoggard could take it to another level here from a physical perspective. Holloman also wouldn’t have to worry about a foul here or there that would get him back on the bench, so that gives him a bit more freedom in comparison to the much needed starters.

The potential issues for Michigan State’s backcourt

Shooting, speed, athleticism, handles, passing ability, rebounding, toughness — there aren’t many things that the Spartan backcourt doesn’t have in spades this year.

One obvious shortcoming for them, though, is their length. Outside of Walker who is 6-foot-1 on a good day, Akins (6-foot-4), Hoggard (6-foot-4) and Holloman (6-foot-2 with long arms) all have very good size for the point guard position and are solid for shooting guards on the college level as well. They could run into trouble, though, against teams that play really long off-guards.

It’s not only that it becomes harder for them to get their shots off, the passing lanes also get tighter for smaller players against a tall, long defense. Again, Michigan State isn’t at a clear-cut physical disadvantage here, and should be more than fine in the long run, but it is a potential matchup issue that bears watching in certain games. Pierre Brooks could help out here from time to time, but that wouldn’t be ideal as a long-term solution.

Another thing that could become a problem for the Spartans down the road is outside shooting. Walker is a sniper and has to be respected all around the court. But the sample size for Akins’ outside shooting is rather small and Hoggard has never proven that he is a consistent outside shooter (although he did make three shots from deep against Villanova). Holloman is yet to make a three-pointer this season (he has only attempted one shoot from beyond the arc). That might change going forward, but as of now shooting remains at least a small question mark.

The Spartans have tremendous potential in the backcourt

A lot was made before the season of the fact that Michigan State didn’t really have a clear go-to-guy on the roster. Considering the first few weeks of the season, it seems clear that Walker is shooting for this role, especially late in games. It showed last season already from time to time, and in terms of his maturity, his demeanor and his skill set, he also seems like the most logical choice.

It has to be noted though that Hoggard also has shown tremendous signs of being a leader on both ends of the court and he had longer stretches last season where he looked like a player that will make others follow him. Akins is young, but early on it is noticeable that he is accepting the increased responsibility this season and that he will be aggressive as a scorer himself.

In general this is a great sign for Izzo, and while you don’t want to have too many alpha personalities on this team, it won’t hurt a squad that was considered to only have role players at the beginning of the year. Throughout the year, roles will define themselves and it seems as if Michigan State’s backcourt is in a great place.