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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: State of the program

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

After a somewhat underwhelming 2021-2022 men’s basketball season for Michigan State — one that saw players who the program thought would be top-level performers only play at their peak levels for parts of the season, and one that saw the team defense and offense wax and wane frustratingly until the closer-than-the-scoreline defeat to Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament ended the season — how should Michigan State fans (and the coaching staff if they want my opinion) evaluate the state of the program right now?

Coaching Staff

The long march back up to coaching excellence began in earnest this season as Tom Izzo and his staff recovered from the nadir of their careers in 2020-2021. If you remember that shocking season, the Spartans finished No. 64 in Kenpom’s rankings and struggled their way into the vestibule of the NCAA Tournament. This past season marked a significant improvement: the Spartans finished at No. 42 in Kenpom’s final rankings. Despite that improvement, and the clear potential to play at a higher level than MSU showed over the balance of the season, this team could not overcome its flaws, nor consistently execute in the half-court on offense.

The coaching staff did, ultimately, come to understand and rely on its best players, and really did get the team to play well late in the season, which it had failed to do in the previous season — a nice return to form in many ways.

Recruiting remains solid — adding Tre Holloman, Jaxon Kohler and Jeremy Fears Jr. (in the 2023 class) — but the staff perplexingly appears insistent on its policy of not have a full 13-man roster. While this policy grants some level of surety for players that they will have meaningful opportunities in each season, it also means that if players have injuries or poor stretches of play, then the team can find itself in a bind.

Personnel

Dwayne Stephens’ departure as associate head coach leaves a significant void on the bench — Stephens, who was hired as Western Michigan’s head coach, had a significant recruiting, coaching and preparation role, in addition to organizing most of the substitution patterning. While Izzo has yet to hire Stephens’ replacement, he clearly understands the pivotal nature of the hire — an excellent recruiter, strong tactical mind, big-man developer, robust personality and somebody who understands both the transfer portal and the intricacies of name, image and likeness opportunities are required traits.

The fact that Izzo has not filled this vacancy with a more familiar face may indicate that his search will take him outside of his initial comfort zone. Adding in a new voice and “outsider” perspective could prove essential in re-energizing the coaching room and expanding Michigan State’s recruiting footprint.

Coaching — Strategy & Tactics

The staff’s eventual recognition of the strength of A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker as offensive drivers helped kick the team’s offense back into high gear down the stretch of the season. The real struggles for the team’s offense, however, continued to stem from inconsistent front-court play. In some games, Joey Hauser would thrive, in others he would be invisible, and the same was true for Marcus Bingham Jr. (who has entered the NBA Draft), Julius Marble (who has since transferred) and Malik Hall.

Marble announced on Monday that he will be transferring to Texas A&M.

This coming season will see the roster potentially lose the talents of Max Christie, in addition to Bingham, Marble and Gabe Brown (who also entered the draft). At this point, the 2022-2023 season will look much more like the 2007-2008 MSU team, which relied on a plethora of talented guards to supplement some solid, but limited bigs. If Hoggard and Jaden Akins can take significant steps forward as scorers (both need to find consistency in their jump shots), then this team will have exciting possibilities.

Kohler will anchor the post-offense for a good chunk of each game, and Hall and Hauser should star in higher-usage offensive roles. With Hauser finding the best form of his Spartan career down the stretch (even in games where he was not highly productive in the box-score, he really did play great basketball), Hall should have a considerable weight taken off of his shoulders — the balance of the offense will really allow Hall to thrive if the team consistently engages him in the offense, and if he, himself, plays with the kind of aggression that saw him absolutely dominate Loyola Chicago, Louisville, Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland, Indiana and at Maryland.

Hall’s flashes of brilliance were bright last season, but came too infrequently — much of that has to do with the coaching staff consistently running plays for him at his spots, and with playing him alongside personnel that allow him to thrive. Kohler’s and Hauser’s offensive versatility will open up the paint for Hall and the driving guards, which will give this team an offensive fluidity that it has not enjoyed since Xavier Tillman’s departure.

Roster

The returning roster remains strong, with the potential for greatness depending on how the rest of the offseason progresses. This team has needs on the wing and in the front-court, and needs to add length, defense, rebounding and shooting via the transfer portal.

Departing

The team loses its two longest players, by a wide margin, in Brown and Bingham. While neither player quite reached the heights that I envisioned for them (again, the season would have been wildly different if Aaron Henry had returned for his senior year — and Brown and Bingham would have benefitted by his presence and had their strengths maximized, and their weaknesses masked), they both had strong seasons.

Bingham in particular, had the length, disruptive ability and rebounding acumen to dominate on the defensive end. His loss has no clear replacement on the team. Brown’s shooting, defensive length (when he actually leveraged it) and veteran presence will be missed. But Christie, if he returns, and Pierre Brooks both have legitimate shooting chops from the perimeter, even if they did not shoot the ball particularly well their freshmen seasons. Marble’s decision to enter the transfer portal means that Michigan State functionally must replace all of its minutes at the center position — not an ideal situation. While Marble’s defense proved maddeningly inconsistent, his generally efficient offensive production (especially his high-level mid-range jump shooting) helped stabilize bench lineups later in the season and, at times, carried the Spartan offense.

Returning

A core returning group of Hauser, Hall, Walker, Hoggard, Akins, Brooks, and Mady Sissoko is a solid group. While the front-court depth (particularly at center), and proven wing shooting and defense remain significant areas for concern, this is a group that has some shooting, play-making ability, solid defensive acumen and real synergy in terms of complimentary skills.

Hauser and Hall can both shoot the ball from the perimeter, can attack certain matchups off the bounce, are willing passers and solid defenders (Hauser in particular really settled into a net-neutral defender, which is crucial). While Hauser’s short arms and limited athleticism lower his ceiling, his effectiveness as a shooter and his schematic understanding on both ends of the floor help the team operate at a high level when his deficiencies can be masked by his teammates. Hall, similarly short-armed, but clearly a better athlete, appears set for a major star-turn as a senior. His isolation scoring carried the Spartans at times during the season, and his timely shot-making helped stretch the floor for the Spartans’ slashers and drivers. If these two veteran forwards can play like seniors and find a level of consistency on offense that has eluded them thus far in their careers, then the team’s offensive balance will rocket into the stratosphere.

Walker, Hoggard and Akins all had strong seasons, with Walker and Hoggard closing the years as two of the top four players on the team in the postseason. Walker found his offensive aggression and Hoggard harnessed his offensive aggression while pushing himself to become the Spartans’ top perimeter defender. If these two build off of last season’s closing stretch, then the dual-point-guard-lineup will officially be back. Walker’s three-point shooting and timely scoring outbursts, and Hoggard’s relentless paint-pressure put a ton of pressure on opposing bigs and open up shots for others. Both guards can lead the line, and both guards have proven the ability to carry the offense.

Despite his mostly solid freshman season, Akins remains a diamond in the rough. With Brown and Christie taking the vast majority of wing possessions, Akins never quite got in a rhythm last season, much to the team’s detriment. Akins has it. He can create off the bounce far better than he showed last season, he can slash after catching off of movement, he can finish, he can defend and he can shoot the ball better than he has shown. His increase in repetitions and game-opportunities will reveal the full extent of his talent early next season, and Spartan opponents will be in despair.

The 2007-2008 comparison becomes really interesting when looking at this group of five players in comparison to the nine-man rotation from that Drew Neitzel-led team. That team had Neitzel, Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan, Goran Suton, Travis Walton, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, Marquise Gray and Drew Naymick. While this coming season’s team may not have perfect one-to-one comparisons, the Walker-Hoggard-Akins trio smacks somewhat of the Neitzel-Walton-Lucas trio: some shooting, functional athleticism, speed, defense, shot-creation and defense-manipulation. The outstanding question in the back-court is the impact that Brooks, Holloman (see below), and any other transfer(s) will have.

The front-court also looks somewhat of the aforementioned group: Hall and Morgan bear a number of similarities (with Hall providing more shooting, and Morgan more defense and rebounding), and Suton and the combination of Hauser and Kohler (see below) evoke each other as well to a not-insignificant degree — with Hauser and Kohler again providing more shooting and Suton rebounding and defending the rim better. Will Sissoko and any transfers prove capable of contributing defense, rebounding and dunks as Gray and Naymick did? The odds are low that he provides as much as those two, but filling in those areas of need would go a long way toward making this solid looking team into a potentially great one.

Incoming

Holloman and Kohler are going to have BIG seasons. There is no way around it. As of right now, the odds are high that Kohler will start at the center and play about 20 minutes per game (if not more), and that Holloman will play a major role off the bench as a freshman as well. If Christie remains in the draft, as I expect him to at this point, then at least two of Walker, Hoggard and Akins will start, leaving an immediate role for Holloman as one of two guards (at this point) coming off the bench.

Holloman’s long arms, defensive wizardry, passing skills and winning basketball mentality will ensure that Izzo trusts him completely early on in the season. This is a freshman who will surprise many pundits despite being the Player of the Year in Minnesota and producing a terrific high school career — they will not be able to say that he did not warn them.

For his part, Kohler is a beast. His skill level as a rising freshman is outstanding — think Kevin McHale, Nikola Jokic, senior-year Derrick Nix and Paul Davis in terms of style: he can score from all three levels using footwork, countermoves and terrific touch inside, and is a solid jump shooter extending out to the three-point arc with a compact release and excellent touch. Kohler can also pass at a high level, rebound and continues to improve as a defender. I doubt he ever becomes a stud defender, but he works at it, which is crucial. He is smart and generally in position, and he has enough size and length to contest shots in the paint. His attention to his own conditioning and physical transformation indicate the drive that he has to be great, and his early-career opportunities should rapidly accelerate his development.

Projected Depth Chart

For the purposes of this exercise, I will assume that Max Christie remains in the NBA Draft.

1 - Hoggard, Holloman
2 - Walker, Akins
3 - Hall, Brooks
4 - Hauser
5 - Kohler, Sissoko

This nine-man group, on its own has a lot of positional versatility. Hauser and Hall can both play “up” a position (moving from the “3” and “4” to the “4” and “5” spots, respectively), as can Brooks, and Akins, Hoggard and Holloman should all be able to guard college wings despite playing in “three-guard” lineups.

I could envision shifting from a starting group of Hoggard-Walker-Hall-Hauser-Kohler, to a smaller-ball lineup of Hoggard-Walker-Akins-Hall-Hauser, before mixing in Brooks (for Hoggard, Walker, or Hall), Holloman (entering with whichever of Hoggard and Walker came out first going in for the other guard and Hall or Akins), and Sissoko (coming in for Hauser or Kohler, if Kohler precedes him).

Without any additions, this is a group that could compete for a Big Ten title simply because of the quality of the Hoggard-Walker-Hall-Hauser-Kohler-Akins-Holloman seven-man group. If Brooks and Sissoko take major steps forward, then this nine-man rotation could, on its own, prove too much for most teams in the conference.

Recruiting

With only nine players projected to enter the season with a real shot at playing time, the lack of depth, and particularly the lack of size, defense and rebounding in the front-court, and defense and shooting on the wing, indicate, to me, that the team needs to add probably two bodies. Again, if Christie returns, then the only true need is at center, really.

Transfer Portal

The transfer portal is littered with high-quality basketball players, at the two positions of need — defensive shooting wing and a center — here are some names that intrigue:

Defensive wing (with shooting, ideally): Mississippi State’s D.J. Jeffries (long shot), Oakland’s Micah Parrish (who has visited Michigan State) and James Graham III (former Spartan target who spent an ill-fated year at Maryland).

Center: North Carolina State’s Manny Bates

None of these players are program changers, but all would be viable and solid contributors. Parrish appears to be a top priority for the staff and has taken a visit to East Lansing.

Looking ahead

After next season, the presumptive returning players for 2022-2023 will include:

1 - Hoggard, Holloman
2 - Akins, _______________
3 - Brooks, _____________
4 - __________, __________
5 - Kohler, Sissoko

With Jeremy Fears Jr. already on board, the staff remains in pursuit of a large class that will need to add multiple wings, forwards and bigs.

Class of 2023 targets (in apparent order of priority)

Xavier Booker - 6’10” PF (Indianapolis, Indiana), No. 103 in 247 Composite rankings, Booker is a LONG, athletic, and talented young power forward. He can shoot the ball with a solid lefty stroke, he handles the ball in the open court, he defends with length and bounce and he competes tenaciously on the glass. He evokes Jaren Jackson Jr. to some degree, although he does not have quite the length or shooting that Jackson does, he appears to be a quicker and bouncier player.

Braelon Green - 6’3” SG (Southfield, Michigan), No. 48 in 247 Composite rankings, Green, who has been my top-target for the class (outside of Fears) for a couple of years now, has an incredibly high ceiling. He shoots the ball, can handle and drives aggressively, and uses his terrific athleticism and long arms to get his shot off and to finish at the rim. I think he would be in five-star territory right now if he had not moved to California and injured his shoulder last year. The subsequent dip in his ranking and development may actually benefit Michigan State’s recruitment — he is a dog of a competitor and would fit in perfectly with Fears.

Devin Royal - 6’6” SF (Pickerington, Ohio), No. 86 in 247 Composite rankings, Royal, a recent addition to the scouting radar, is an NBA-level athlete who dunks everything near the rim. His skill-level as a shooter and ball-handler remains in progress, but this is the kind of athlete that you bet on.

Sam Walters - 6’8” PF (The Villages, Florida), No. 78 in 247 Composite rankings, Walters, another recent addition to the scouting radar, offers a long, lanky shooting-forward. His frame is slight, so even with his natural weight and strength improvement, he will never be a dominant interior player. That being said, the lefty can stroke the ball, and plays with an edge to him.

Cam Christie - 6’6” SG (Rolling Meadows, Illinois), No 151 in 247 Composite rankings, Christie, the younger brother of Max, remains on the Spartan coaching staff’s radar — he, like his brother, remains rail thin, but is long, competitive and can shoot the ball and play with skill and a high basketball IQ — like his brother.

Matas Buzelis - 6’9” SF (Wolfeboro, New Hampshire), No. 6 in 247 Composite rankings, Buzelis is a moon-shot. He is long, athletic, a terrific ball-handler, finisher, and shooter, and his presence on the national radar has been a long-term one meaning that his recruitment will include every big name school and multiple early-professional-route options. He is a potential future top-10 NBA Draft pick. He is an outstanding player and not one that I would hold my breath on.

Curtis Williams Jr. - 6’6” SF (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan), No. 45 in 247 Composite rankings, Williams is an interesting case. I view him as “overrated” at this point because he is a mediocre athlete, but his shooting is real and his ability to really play basketball should not be ignored. The fact that Izzo and the staff have not made him a major priority indicates a shared measured evaluation, especially given Brooks’ presence on the roster as an upperclassman when Williams would theoretically join the team. Still, he is a guy to keep an eye on, especially if Green, Royal and other wing-forward options go elsewhere.