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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: 2021-2022 season reflections

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Where is the MSU program headed in the future?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round Greenville - Michigan St vs Duke Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After a frustrating season ended in such a tantalizing fashion, with a loss to Duke in the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, the long wait until next season begins. While the standards of Tom Izzo’s program remained out of reach for this year’s team (to keep the Tantalus theme going), the tide is turning for Michigan State, and major momentum is building in Izzo’s program — the labors of this year’s team will undoubtedly bear fruit next season. But what happened over the last couple of years?

After being a top-15 mainstay in Kenpom’s rankings for seven out of eight years before the 2020-21 season, Izzo’s teams have finished at No. 64 and No. 40, respectively, the last two seasons. As with most stumblings of college basketball programs, Michigan State hit a road-bump with recruiting; specifically in the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes.

Out of those two classes, and nine recruits in total, we can say that Izzo really “hit” on as few as four players and as many as six of those players. Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier, from the 2018 class, transferred out of Michigan State; Aaron Henry was a major hit; Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Joey Hauser (who I place in this class, for all intents and purposes) eventually “came good,” but failed to become highly productive until their senior years, and even then, none took real “star” turns.

From the 2019 class, Rocket Watts transferred after scuffling for the better part of two seasons, while Malik Hall and Julius Marble appear to be somewhat muted “hits’” overall. Hall is potentially due for a real star turn as a senior (that would something like 30 minutes, 14 points, seven rebounds and great defense every game), and Marble is well-poised to be a major contributor next year. Despite these inconsistent classes (and, again, if Hall and Marble have big senior seasons, then the story will change somewhat), this program is back to eyeing major championships as of next season — so how did this 2021-2022 season really serve as the fulcrum for this rejuvenation?

Here are my thoughts on the 2021-2022 Michigan State men’s basketball program, as week as my thoughts on the program moving forward.

The back-court is in great shape

It has taken two years to rebuild the back-court, in the wake of Spartan legend Cassius Winston’s storied career, but next year should see the Spartans really dominate the guard and wing positions because Izzo has rebuilt his pipeline of talented “smalls.” This season saw Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, Max Christie and Brown really playing excellent basketball by season’s end. Next season will see Walker, Hoggard and Jaden Akins (who showed a lot as an under-utilized guard-wing), joined by freshman Tre Holloman.

And in the 2023-24 season, assuming Walker does not stay for his extra year of eligibility (which he very well may, in fact), Hoggard, Holloman and Akins will be joined by potential All-American-level point-guard, Jeremy Fears, at least. That is a TON of talent, and, as Walker, Hoggard and Akins demonstrated down the stretch, these guys appear more than comfortable sharing the court together, which brings Izzo back toward the dual-point-guard lineups that have been so effective in past seasons.

On the wing, losing Henry last summer ultimately took a championship-level ceiling away from this group. With Henry in the fold, literally all of this team’s problems would have been solved — go-to scoring, another lock-down perimeter defender, a rebounder, paint-breaker, explosive-play-maker and a bona fide star. Alas, it was not to be.

Over these past two seasons, rebuilding the dominant wing play from the 2018 and 2019 teams proved challenging given the recruiting wobbles: Brown and Henry could not quite sync-up their developmental trajectories, which scuttled the 2020-2021 season, and Henry’s departure and Christie’s inability to maintain his offensive juice in the 2021-2022 season meant that the wing position group for this season never quite reached the heights I anticipated when I ranked the Spartans No. 18 in my preseason rankings (although, to be fair, losing a nip-and-tuck game to Duke for a chance to get the Spartans to the Sweet 16 basically puts them right in that 17-24 range, which is where I saw this team this past fall).

Although Brown likely leaves this summer, before his real peak (which he began to show by end of season), Christie, Akins, and Pierre Brooks appear ready to have dominant sophomore seasons. While Brooks did not show much of an offensive repertoire this season, Izzo’s continued willingness to play him late in the season indicates the level of comfort and trust the staff has with his game and his competencies on defense. Akins and Christie appear to be one grueling summer in the weight room away from breakout seasons. I believe that Christie would likely get drafted somewhere in the second round if he declares for the NBA Draft, but I am betting that he will return for his sophomore season.

Both Christie and Akins need about 10 to 15 pounds of muscle (basically all in their legs), so that they can withstand the grueling college season and be more impactful in the painted area in the second half of next season and in the postseason — both guys had their best moments before the last month or two of the season, indicating that their bodies simply wore down. Just as importantly, Hoggard has shown that he can more than “functionally” defend wings — he can defend them at a very high level (just ask Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, both of whom really struggled at times against Hoggard’s quick feet, strong frame, long arms and competitive fire), while providing paint-pressure and distribution to shooters.

The future looks bright for A.J. Hoggard

Hoggard, in particular, has me excited for next season in part because he increasingly resembles the player I envisioned when he committed to Michigan State a few years ago. At the time, guys like Shelvin Mack, Deron Williams and Andre Miller all made sense to me as comparison players, and this season Hoggard began to make some of those somewhat lofty comparisons look increasingly reasonable.

Yes, Hoggard’s shot still needs work (most importantly his free-throw shooting — three-point shooting improvement almost always follows free-throw shooting and free-throw percentage improvement), but defensively he was really excellent this season after a rocky non-conference schedule on defense, and as a passer and paint-breaker, he was comfortably the best on the team.

Hoggard (and Walker, for that matter, and Akins too) should look around the Big Ten right now and think to himself, “Yeah, no one is stopping me for the next two seasons.” In sum, the Spartan back-court is ready to dominate the Big Ten and much of college basketball.

The front-court needs to be rebuilt, but isn’t far off

The front-court has not quite reached the Jaren Jackson-Nick Ward-Xavier Tillman heights from a few years ago, but Izzo has confirmed himself capable of getting plenty-enough out of bigs this past season. As bleak as things may look right now, think about where this team was just last season at this point, and then consider the strides made by the bigs over last summer and this season.

Bingham went from averaging 11 minutes, 3.5 points, three rebounds and two stocks (steals and blocks) as a junior to averaging 19 minutes, nine points, six rebounds, three stocks and 40 percent three-point shooting as a senior. For his part, after struggling as a junior and through the early part of his senior season, Joey Hauser finally found himself in the last couple of months of the season, even as Hall fell off from his mid-season dominance. Marble, too, showed that, when he defends with discipline and effort, his solid offensive game can prove highly effective.

The front-court is building again, albeit slowly. Marble has developed, despite my frustrations with his defensive acumen earlier in the season (he really did become an at-least-solid defender by season’s end, and looks primed to be solid as a senior), Mady Sissoko appears to be another year away from being a major factor, yes, but even he can step in and find consistency next season in a limited-but-consistent role.

At the forward, Hall should have a huge senior season. Despite falling off down the stretch, Hall was, at times, the best player on the team, and won multiple games for the Spartans this season. If he steps up another level or two this summer (with a near-guarantee of playing around 30 minutes per game), then that position should be secure no matter what happens in the transfer portal.

The most exciting component of the front-court, however, is Jaxon Kohler. Kohler, currently ranked No. 65 in the composite rankings, should be excellent next season — Kohler will really amaze a lot of people with his skill, passing and three-level scoring ability. And, if he can improve physically, should be capable of at least holding his own when defending centers. If the coaching staff can add another transfer big or two, then this front-court rebuild will be complete.

The defense showed signs of improvement by season’s end

Most importantly, this team, by the end of the season, got back to playing really good defense, especially from the perimeter, and also showed much-improved half-court offense. Hoggard and Walker led the way on both ends, playing generally sound and at times excellent defense and, on offense, penetrating, building possessions out of pick-and-roll and incorporating some of Izzo’s classic sets.

With improvements from both Akins and Christie, as the primary wings, this group will be terrific even before considering the contributions the team will get from Holloman (who will be a great complimentary guard —long arms, tenacious defense and great passing go a long way in college basketball guard-play) and Brooks, whose three-point stroke and strong body should play a significant role off the bench.

In the half-court offense, replacing Bingham and Hauser’s touches with more touches for Marble, Hall and Kohler will actually likely see an improvement in scoring efficiency — the question there will be defense.

The biggest concern is whether or not the staff will come along for the ride? The team needs to add another front-court body or two through a late-addition freshman or a transfer; the staff also need to keep improving offensive execution in the half-court, which got better in the last three weeks of the season, but took way too long to develop.

Izzo must keep playing two-guard or three-guard lineups and play “smaller” overall; he should also absolutely consider playing full-court man-to-man given the plethora of smaller bodies, the general lack of rim-protection on the roster and the comparative lack of dominant bigs in college ball next season (as many of the best veteran bigs will be heading to the professional ranks — there are a handful of high quality freshman bigs, as there are every season, but the glut of dominant bigs will not be quite as significant).

This season was frustrating on many levels. I envisioned the team reaching the level we saw from the Spartans at the end of the season far earlier on in proceedings. But development is almost never strictly linear — or if it is, the “slope” or “rate” of linear progression often vacillates. Math aside, this 2021-2022 team got there by the end, which is important because the 2020-21 team never quite did.

The fact that Izzo was able to get this year’s team to within a couple of minutes of a Sweet 16 appearance (and nearly beating a Duke team with probably five players who will be drafted on it, including a possible No. 1 overall pick and as many as three other first-rounders) tells you a lot. Given that six of the team’s top-nine players return (and two lower-minute contributors return as well — including Brooks, who should be a rotation player next season), this MSU team is poised for a major step forward in 2022-2023.

If veterans, guard-play, three-point shooting, defense and coaching fill in five out of the eight keys for outstanding college basketball teams, then this team is sitting pretty heading into the offseason. Given that the other three factors: size and length, rebounding and star-players are well within the reasonable aspirations for this team’s offseason, then Izzo will likely be sporting a top-15 or so squad heading into next season, with a higher ceiling and a higher floor than this past season. As always...

Go Green!