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Michigan State facing plenty of question marks heading into the NCAA Tournament

MSU looks to savor a fairly inconsistent season and go on one of the Spartans’ patented magical March runs.

Big Ten Tournament - Quarterfinals - Michigan State v Wisconsin
The Spartans are looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament and hopefully some late season magic.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

After a turbulent finish to the regular season, which saw Michigan State drop all the way back into the Big Ten’s no man’s land in the conference standings, the Spartans regained some traction with a fairly strong showing in their conference tournament. However, it might have cost the Spartans the services of point guard Tyson Walker — who rolled his ankle against Purdue. Walker’s status for MSU’s Round of 64 matchup with Davidson is still up in the air. It is just one of the many question marks that plague the Spartans after the team’s inconsistent season in 2021-2022.

Which Michigan State team will show up against Davidson?

Michigan State’s season has been quite a roller-coaster ride as the team paired impressive performances against top-level competition with inexplicable non-showings versus average opponents.

More often than not, this year’s group struggled not only with its confidence, but also with a consistent effort throughout the 40 minutes of play each game. This is highly unusual for a Tom Izzo-coached team and even the Hall of Fame coach at times seemed at a loss regarding the up and down nature of his players. As empty as the old phrase might sound, these Spartans truly can hang with almost anybody in the nation on a good day (see first half versus Baylor, Wisconsin, Purdue, etc.) and also lose to everyone on a bad one (see Northwestern and Penn State).

What is true collectively for the Spartans could also be said about each individual player. We have seen guys like Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, Malik Hall or A.J. Hoggard perform at an all-conference type level, only to deliver an almost no-show performance the next time out. Numerous reasons can be found with each and every player ranging from confidence up to injuries or youth. In the end, though, the Spartans will need all hands on deck on versus Davidson on Friday, or this year’s March Madness won’t be that mad after all.

Will Tyson Walker be ready for the game on Friday?

Tom Izzo recently updated the media on Walker’s status, and said that he isn’t sure if the point guard will be ready to go on Friday. The swelling of his ankle — which, as mentioned, he sprained against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal — has gone down. That is clearly is a positive sign. Nonetheless, Walker’s status remains up in the air. Usually these type of things don’t heal in a matter of a week, but you’ll never know. Even if Walker is ready to suit up, by the looks of it, he clearly won’t be 100 percent come game time.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 12 Big Ten Tournament - Michigan State v Purdue
“Come on, son, we need you!” - Tom Izzo and Tyson Walker
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Walker misses the entire game, it would certainly be a big blow for the Spartans. In the latter stages of the season, Walker has been the Spartans’ most-clutch performer and the guy who the team looks to for scoring in dire moments. As shown by his 26-point explosion against Illinois, or his game-winning shot against Purdue during the regular season, Walker has the type of game to decide a tight NCAA Tournament contest on his own. He might not have been consistent with it throughout the year, and many rightfully wondered about his at times passive play, but overall the potential for him to lift the team up is definitely there.

Who will step up as a leader in the NCAA Tournament? Will anyone?

It was a question before the season, it has been an ongoing question throughout the year and it still remains a question: Who is the clear-cut leader of this team? Who is the “go-to-guy,” so to speak? In fact, nobody really knows and it seems as if this group is using a leader by committee approach.

At times Hall — a team captain — has played a crucial role for the Spartans, then Walker has stepped up in late game moments and, from time to time, even Brown (also a team captain) has had his games where he seemed to lead the party. Max Christie — in terms of his natural talent — would be an obvious choice, but he has not always lived up to his high five-star billing just yet.

In terms of a guy who truly marches ahead, though, Hoggard has maybe taken the biggest strides throughout the year and, at least for now, seems like the type of player who can consistently rally a team behind him one day. Will it happen on Friday? Nobody knows. But with his bullish driving ability, his (at times) very stingy, aggressive defense and a will to take the team on his shoulders, Hoggard seems like the most natural fit for a leading role (at least as long as Walker keeps playing as passive as he has for most of the season).

Now, Hoggard is still a sophomore, was wildly inconsistent this year and has obvious holes in his game (such as his jump-shooting). Going forward, though, he might very well turn into one of those patented point guard generals that Izzo has loved his entire career.

Does this Michigan State team have an identity to rely on?

Much has been made about the lack of a “go-to-guy” for MSU and rightfully so. Another problem that has shown up throughout the entire season is that these Spartans seem to lack an identity as a team. Are the Spartans an offensive or a defensive team? You could argue neither, even if they have certain strengths on both sides. Are they a rugged team that constantly defends hard? Certainly not, even if they have the potential with a bevy of talented individual defenders. Can MSU run? Yes, but not many opponents would be scared of the Spartans’ tempo game this year. Michigan State is not very proficient in the post or from three-point range, the Spartans don’t get a lot of individual offense going either. So what is Michigan State’s identity?

Maybe we will find out on Friday. The NCAA Tournament has its own rules and a lot of teams with just as many questions marks have gotten hot at just the right time in the past. There is certainly the possibility for that with this Spartans squad. They might miss plenty of things, but their deep roster could become a strength in the tournament. Due to seemingly someone else stepping up every night, Michigan State is a little bit harder to prepare for than other teams where you know which player will shoulder the burden. And it certainly wouldn’t be Izzo’s first team that wildly outperforms expectations going into March.

Either way, Michigan State will be along for the ride.