Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans finished a frustrating 2021-2022 season with a record of 23-13 (11-9 in the Big Ten). The ‘21-’22 campaign saw the MSU men’s basketball team being unable to defend effectively enough to overcome its surprising efficiency struggles, including the season-long dip in scoring efficiency from five-star freshman guard Max Christie (who never quite emerged as an offensive star).
Furthermore, the team’s collective inability to take care of the ball, get to the free-throw line or dominate the glass guaranteed that the Spartans had to fight for every point — never a good recipe for success.
This past offseason, Izzo and his staff put the finishing touches on a star-studded 2023 recruiting class, but “stood-pat” with the roster for the 2022-2023 season, choosing not to add a transfer to a team seemingly in need of an extra body or two (especially in the front-court). The coaching staff put its trust in the returning players to develop and to step into bigger roles, while bettering their efficiency and improving their team-defense.
In my preseason ranking of the top-60 men’s basketball teams, I placed the Spartans at No. 21, due to the quality of Michigan State’s returning top-five players. This ranking assumes that those players can improve and cover the deficiencies of the center position, which will take the form of a by-committee rotation of likely somewhat-over-matched players. If Mady Sissoko, Jaxon Kohler, or even Carson Cooper can find consistency, then the possible ceiling of the team changes.
Guard Jaden Akins’ foot injury and subsequent surgery, a little less than two months ago, also cast an ominous pall over the weeks leading up to the season, with Akins’ athleticism, defensive ability and scoring skill sorely needed to supplement the departures of Gabe Brown and Max Christie on the wing — the opening games of the season will feel his absence if he is not ready to play to open the season against Northern Arizona. The good news is that Akins is progressing and seems to be approaching a return soon, if it’s not on Monday.
Let’s preview what’s to come for Michigan State during the 2022-2023 season.
Status of the roster:
1 - A.J Hoggard, Tre Holloman
2 - Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins
3 - Malik Hall, Pierre Brooks Jr.
4 - Joey Hauser, Jason Whitens
5 - Mady Sissoko, Jaxon Kohler, Carson Cooper
This group, led by Hoggard, Walker, Hall, Hauser and Akins (the aforementioned “top-five), should prove more than capable of competing at a high level with most teams in the nation and within the Big Ten Conference. While the center spot will remain a challenge all season, this group of five should be able to cause every team it faces considerable problems on both ends.
Hoggard, Walker and Akins will prove disruptive defenders; Hoggard, Walker, Akins and Hall will be able to penetrate defenses off the bounce; Hoggard, Walker and Hall are all capable-to-outstanding passers; and, significantly, Walker, Hall, Hauser and Akins should all provide consistent three-point shooting this season.
If Holloman or Brooks and two of the players from the center-trio can produce at a solid level, then this team should become formidable by the end of the season. In the season-opening scrimmage against Grand Valley State, both Sissoko and Kohler had strong moments and struggles — the early season beast of a schedule will prove eye-opening for both players, and probably help to rapidly accelerate both their individual growth and the staff’s ability to gauge their likely season-long trajectories.
The GVSU scrimmage also revealed that Brooks still has some ground to cover to claim a consistent rotation role once Akins returns. Brooks’ defense was an adventure and his shooting did not quite click in the scrimmage. He will, of course, have the opening non-conference games to stake out a role for himself, but that effort will not succeed if he does not rebound and defend. In his own right, freshman guard Tre Holloman looked like he will be a good-to-great defender from the opening whistle (while his shooting will need considerable work).
The team will not operate or play “normally” until Akins recovers from injury and gets back up to speed. He will absolutely change the dynamic of this team on both ends, and form one of the more exciting trios of guards in the country along with Walker and Hoggard. But until he returns, the back-court depth will be tested, and even with his return, the wing rotation will need Brooks to take strides.
In short, the coaching staff’s gamble — to not add any bodies on the wing or in the front-court — will compel each player on the roster to raise their level quickly. Expect some early bumps and bruises, but for the daunting non-conference schedule to pay considerable dividends later on.
Strategic and Tactical Keys:
This team will need to play fast on the offensive end — pushing like crazy in transition, and moving the ball and bodies with tremendous pace in the half-court. On defense, the team must play a higher-pressure perimeter defense to help alleviate the lack of proven post-defense. I am not advocating for constant traps, rather that the guards and wings, especially, must get into the ball-handler’s space and make their lives uncomfortable — no passive defense on the perimeter.
Expect Hoggard, Walker, Akins and Holloman to form the needed disruptive pack of “Spartan Dawgs” on the perimeter — their active hands and quick feet should help shut-down driving lanes, disrupt passing lanes, pressure ball-handlers into mistakes and delay the ordinary flow of opposition offenses. Hall and Hauser, while not standout athletes, will need to help organize the weak-side defensively, cover mistakes from teammates and must help rebound on the defensive glass.
It is the defensive glass that is the biggest concern heading into the season for Michigan State, at least on the defensive end. The Spartans conceded about 27 percent of available offensive rebounds to their opponents last season — not a disastrous number, but one that guaranteed the team could not become elite on the defensive end. That No. 127 defensive rebounding rate, combined with the anemic ability to turn opponents over (No. 252 in steal-rate, and No. 348 in non-steal turnover rate), sealed the Spartans’ fate on defense in the 2021-2022 season.
Last year, the Spartans finished with the No. 67-ranked defensive efficiency in the nation (per Kenpom), a number that is simply not good enough to compete for championships and tells you the limited efficacy of excellent shot-blocking (the Spartans had the No. 22 shot-blocking rate in the nation).
Rim protection is about more than blocking shots, it is about preventing high-quality shots from occurring at the rim, most of which occur on drives to the paint, transition opportunities, and offensive rebounds. Traditional post-ups account for an increasingly limited number of shots at the rim each year in college basketball. So defending the rim, and the keys for the Spartan centers and team defense as a whole this season, should, and increasingly does, revolve around limiting dribble penetration, denying back-door cuts, limiting defensive transition opportunities (i.e. cut down on turnovers), and preventing offensive rebounds.
This team does not have a behemoth center, but that is not needed to win big in college basketball. Instead, the Spartan bigs and veteran forwards have to communicate, rotate effectively, box-out and rebound, while the Spartan guards must pressure the heck out of the ball, force more turnovers and take care of the ball on offense.
I am confident that this team will improve on last season’s finish in terms of its overall efficiency (offensive and defensive), its performance in the conference and its postseason success. Expect some losses in the non-conference, but also expect some wins against higher profile opponents.
- Expect Hoggard, Walker and Hall to routinely lead the Spartans in scoring — I expect all three players to average at least 10 points per game on the season.
- Expect Walker, Hall and Hauser to shoot better than 38 percent from three-point range, and for Akins, Hoggard and Brooks to shoot around 34 percent from three-point range (giving the Spartans six bona fide perimeter shooters).
- Expect Hoggard, Walker and Akins to combine for about five steals per game.
- Expect Michigan State to win a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
- And, finally, expect the Spartans to reach at least the Elite Eight.