ACC/Big Ten Challenge:
Where: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, Indiana
When: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022 at 9:15 p.m. ET
TV/Streaming (within the U.S.): ESPN2
No. 20 Michigan State (5-2), No. 29 (Kenpom)
The Spartans survived a brutally difficult trip to Portland, Oregon, which forced Tom Izzo’s team to play three games in four days without two of its top six players. Despite these obstacles, the Spartans competed at a high level, won two games, and got solid contributions from peripheral players whose play, as a group, consistently outstripped expectations.
Pierre Brooks, in particular, performed at a high level on offense, demonstrating the fearlessness and confidence to fire a high volume of three-pointers. The team needed each of those shots, and each of Brooks’ makes from long-distance. His big weekend now has his season percentage over 41 percent from three-point range (14-34). Combined with Tyson Walker (34.5 percent, 10-29) and Joey Hauser (47 percent, 17-36), Brooks forms a legitimate high-volume, high efficiency three-point trio.
A.J. Hoggard’s continued willingness to shoot three-point shots (27.8 percent, 5-18) is also important — having a high volume of attempts will make defenses respect Hoggard — and I expect him to end up in the 30 to 33 percent range from long-distance this season. Hoggard just needs to take good shots from long-range, as will Jaden Akins when he returns. Upon his return, I expect Malik Hall to also continue to shoot around three three-point shots per game and to hit them above a 35 percent clip.
This consistent barrage of shooting from the perimeter, which I predicted would help balance the Spartan offense this season, has already begun to materialize. It should become a potent weapon as the season progresses. But this weapon will only really threaten teams if many players contribute to it; this is why Brooks’ stepping up to such a significant degree proves so important. When Brooks returns to the bench with Akins, and when Hall gets his legs back under him, this team will have six legitimate shooting threats — a threshold that all 10 of the last 10 national champions have met (each had at least five shooters between 27.5 percent and 45 percent from three-point range). I am not anointing the Spartans as title favorites, but this level of shooting ability defines modern NCAA title winners.
Michigan State Depth Chart:
1 - A.J. Hoggard (6’4” Jr.), Tre Holloman (6’2” Fr.)
2 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Sr.)
3 - Pierre Brooks II (6’5” So.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.), Jason Whitens (6’6” Sr.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (6’9” Jr.), Jaxon Kohler (6’9” Fr.), Carson Cooper (6’11” Fr.)
*Hall and Akins remain injured. Hall is still out for a couple of weeks, while Tom Izzo said Akins was “doubtful” for Wednesday’s game against Notre Dame.
In addition to great shooting, recent title winners all have had top-25 defenses in terms of efficiency and all have had top-10 offenses in terms of efficiency (other than UConn in 2014 — a bizarre title winner, sadly). At this point, the Spartans have considerable work to do to meet those thresholds, with the Spartans’ defense currently sitting at No. 51 in defensive efficiency and No. 21 in offensive efficiency. While those numbers clearly need improvement, a fully healthy version of this team should be able to at least get into the defensive title-challenging zone, and should have a great shot to get into the offensive title-challenging zone as well.
Akins has already proven, even in his not-fully-healthy appearances, to be an instant impact defender, and Malik Hall was, before his injury, the Spartans most consistent performer on both end — averaging 12 points, five rebounds, and playing terrific defense on opposing wings and forwards. Get those two players back healthy and reintegrated into a Spartan team that has found clear roles for Brooks, Holloman, and Jaxon Kohler (the remaining real source of frustration in the rotation, at this point, outside of the aforementioned Hoggard), should make this team at least a contender for the conference title, if not more. Again, the health of this team will likely determine its ceiling, and the health of teams and key players around the country will likely define the NCAA-tournament far more than it has in many years.
Notre Dame (5-1), No. 78 (Kenpom)
1 - Trey Wertz (6’5” Sr.)
2 - JJ Starling (6’4” Fr.)
3 - Cormac Ryan (6’5” Sr.)
4 - Dane Goodwin (6’6” Sr.), Ven-Allen Lubin (6’8” Fr.)
5 - Nate Laszewski (6’10” Sr.)
Notre Dame plays six players, Wertz, Starling, Goodwin, and Laszewski can all hit from long-range, and will all take between three and seven three-pointers. The Fighting Irish do not turn the ball over, will hit every free-throw, and refuse to attack the offensive glass, which tracks with the team’s total lack of depth and need to play at a glacial pace (No. 341 in the nation).
Conversely, this team cannot play and refuses to play defense—Notre Dame cannot afford foul trouble due to its frankly bizarre roster construction. Starling, the replacement for last year’s freshman phenom Blake Wesley (now playing in the NBA), is not quite as explosive as Wesley was, but will prove a serious task for the Spartan perimeter defense missing its best individual defender in Akins.
The Fighting Irish offense methodically tests opponents and often attacks individual match-ups with Laszewski the key hub of the offense both on the interior and the perimeter.
The Spartans should be able to win this game, even on the road and without Akins and Hall, and also despite the weariness the team will still be experiencing after its long west coast trip. The Spartans match-up well against Notre Dame’s personnel, and Portland was an ideal tune-up opponent to practice defending the kind of motion-heavy, three-point oriented screening offense.
Attack the paint relentlessly in this one: Hoggard, Sissoko, Kohler, and Hauser will need to punish Laszewski and Lubin. The Spartans will have opportunities to push pace given its likely dominance on the defensive glass, and MSU will need to take those opportunities to pressure the somewhat feeble Notre Dame defense (No. 168 in defensive efficiency).
If the Spartans take care of the ball, and if Sissoko and Kohler can defend without fouling, then this should be a solid road win to tee-up the first two games of conference play against two surprising and dangerous teams (Northwestern is No. 48 in Kenpom’s ratings, and Penn State is No. 32—two fully deserved ratings: both teams are impressive).
The Spartans grind through another difficult road win. With a few days of rest, this team should have its legs back under it and be ready to pressure the Notre Dame perimeter players into uncharacteristically inefficient nights. While I expect Laszewski to have a big night, going for around 25 points, I see this as a huge game for AJ Hoggard who may go for over 20 points himself in a real harbinger of a dominant conference season from possibly the Spartans most important player.
Michigan State 74, Notre Dame 67
This will likely be my last article for The Only Colors for quite some time, though who knows what the future holds. It has been a delightful journey with you all and I have loved writing for you all and engaging in endless basketball banter with you. Thanks a ton!