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Opinion: Tom Izzo said Michigan State’s program is in the right place; I wouldn’t have agreed until now

Izzo is rarely positive following a loss, but Sunday’s effort against Duke warranted it.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Sunday’s heartbreaker between Michigan State and Duke in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament reminded me of previous tournament matchups between the two programs, at least in stretches.

There were moments that the Spartans had a response for every response from Duke, the sequence of three-straight made threes-pointers from MSU being one of the most significant.

But it wasn’t just senior forward Gabe Brown and senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. (scoring 18 and 16 points, respectively) having arguably their career-best performances that reinforces Tom Izzo’s postgame claim.

There were moments that sophomore point guard A.J. Hoggard showed flashes of Cassius Winston’s level of genius in the 2019 Elite Eight game against Duke, imposing his will and willing baskets out of seemingly nothing.

Then there were the head-scratchers and mental lapses — of which the Spartans had one or two too many — that a team further along wouldn’t have committed. Hoggard’s vision reminds me of Winston’s at times, and at other times, reminds me that he’s a sophomore and that this comparison is one to be made very carefully. Winston is one of the the all-time greats to ever play at Michigan State, and Hoggard has a lot of work to do if he is ever to reach that level.

There were moments that instead of pulling back to the top of the arc for an indecisive end-of-the-shot-clock heave, Winston would’ve pulled up and found the bottom of the basket.

Instead of attempting a steal that resulted in Duke getting an easy two points, Winston would’ve been patient and allowed the collective defensive effort to prevail; he would’ve known when to pause the fast break when it would’ve resulted in a turnover to ensure the best possible shot went up.

But this is why I agree with Izzo that the program is in the right place. Hoggard fits the mold of the floor general who Izzo will trust given one more season, just as it took Winston three years to accomplish the feat the Spartans nearly did on Sunday. This is not to mention freshman guards Max Christie and Jaden Akins displaying the exceptional perimeter defense and timely shot-making that Izzo seeks.

Hoggard always has his head up, and is always trying to get others involved. He might never have the IQ Winston did, and it doesn’t look like Hoggard will ever have the jumper that Winston did at MSU, but he has some “unteachables” in his large frame, and he also has exceptional strength for a guard.

When it mattered, the seniors played their hearts out, and the Spartan faithful should be proud to support a team with the fight this one showed, especially after this squad seemed like it just did not have it throughout the season. All of this came after Izzo criticized his team for lack of leadership from its juniors and seniors on more than one occasion.

To Izzo’s point, in a lot of MSU’s big losses to Duke, North Carolina and the like during the various NCAA Tournaments, the Spartans never came out the aggressor, never looked like the better team for significant stretches and never looked like they belonged on the same floor.

On Sunday, MSU came out as the aggressor. Duke looked timid to take shots in the paint early with Brown and Bingham swatting shots into the third row or making the Blue Devils take difficult looks. When MSU fell to one of the behemoths in the past, the game was often over before it started.

At points, you could argue MSU should’ve won that game. But the Spartans came up just short.

Izzo took a similar tone after Michigan State fell to Texas Tech in the Final Four, as the clip below illustrates. Then, the Spartans ended the following season in championship-level form, but the NCAA Tournament was of course canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2021-2022 Michigan State squad wasn’t quite ready for this moment just yet, beating Duke on the biggest stage, but we thought the Spartans might never be ready again. This team showed a lot of fight, so Sunday’s game convinced me otherwise.