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Prospecting expectations for Michigan State men’s basketball’s 2022-2023 season

Big Ten Tournament - Second Round - Maryland v Michigan State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Given the rather strange offseason, it’s as good a time as ever to gauge the general sentiment around East Lansing by prospecting the Michigan State men’s basketball program and reevaluating expectations and starting lineups heading into the 2022-2023 season.

Poll

What is your outlook on Michigan State men’s basketball’s program for the 2022-2023 season?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    It’s the beginning of the end
    (227 votes)
  • 30%
    This team will flirt with the bubble
    (317 votes)
  • 29%
    First weekend exit in NCAA Tournament
    (308 votes)
  • 13%
    Unexpected Final Four run
    (140 votes)
  • 5%
    Other
    (60 votes)
1052 votes total Vote Now

Reasonable expectations

History is a good indicator when examining Tom Izzo-coached teams. This offseason resembles the one following the 2015-2016 season in which Deyonta Davis declared for the NBA Draft, following a disappointing tournament exit compared to initial season expectations. I definitely thought his departure represented the nail in the coffin for the next season’s prospects.

The next year was arguably more disappointing, as Izzo’s best recruiting class that featured Miles Bridges, Josh Langford Cassius Winston and Nick Ward (four top-40 prospects) didn’t gel quite like most anticipated. The ensuing class that added Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman also failed to meet expectations, exiting in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 once again.

Of course, in vintage Izzo fashion, the season following the departure of two top-10 picks in the NBA Draft (Jackson and Bridges) resulted in a Final Four for the 2018-2019 squad — and a win over one of the most highly-recruited players ever — Duke’s Zion Williamson — to get there.

For this current offseason leading into the 2022-2023 season, MSU won’t bring in five stars to supplement the Spartans’ departing players, but it’s important to remember that these teams rarely progress linearly.

This offseason might also be the most head-scratching. Max Christie, who will remain in the 2022 NBA Draft, was unlike Davis in the sense that he led the team in minutes during his freshman season. So Christie’s decision doesn’t look to be a choice made out of playing time angst.

Some might interpret this as a sign that the program is going in the wrong direction, as opposed to prevailing positivity many held with the highly-ranked recruiting class coming in after Davis left.

Others might recall Travis Trice’s team running to the Final Four in 2015 after one of the Spartans’ most talented starting five failed to do so in 2014, or that Korie Lucious would propel MSU there after Kalin Lucas went down in 2010.

2022-2023 season outlook

Michigan State’s offseason unfolded about as poorly as it could have. Seniors Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr. chose to forgo their “COVID year” eligibility for the NBA Draft. The Spartans’ presumed starting center, Julius Marble, also announced his intentions to enter the transfer portal and eventually chose to play his senior season at Texas A&M. Christie then completed the worst-case scenario offseason for the Spartans, hiring an agent and staying in the draft, despite projecting as a late-first-or-second-round pick.

Izzo likely isn’t pursuing another forward or center in the transfer portal, despite MSU’s front-court departures and the Spartans’ unprecedented struggles rebounding and defending the post last season.

Maybe he’s maintaining a similar selectivity regarding his next assistant coach hire, following the departure of Dwayne Stephens to Western Michigan. He expressed his new assistant should have knowledge of the transfer portal and the know-how to navigate NIL (name, image and likeness) opportunities for student-athletes, avenues MSU has pursued very little so far.

It seems he’s standing pat for now, so what will next season look like?

There are a couple different plausible starting lineup predictions, barring an unexpected transfer addition.

I’ve started to boil down the prospective starting lineup(s) into two segments: the “starting,” season debut lineup, and the end-of-season, “crunch time” lineup.

The most popular, “crunch time” lineup:

-Junior guard A.J. Hoggard

-Senior guard Tyson Walker

-Sophomore guard Jaden Akins

-Senior forward Malik Hall

-Redshirt Senior forward Joey Hauser

-Sixth man — freshman forward Jaxon Kohler

-Seventh man — guy who could give a burst off bench – sophomore forward Pierre Brooks II

-End of season plug-in — junior center Mady Sissoko

This is one I wouldn’t predict to begin the season (particularly with Hauser starting at center), but it’s one I wouldn’t contest, with a couple stipulations: Hoggard must run the point, and Walker must look to shoot.

The Northeastern transfer posted the best three-point percentage on the team at 47.3 percent last season, but Walker ended the year with just the fourth-most attempts per contest. He will have to be No. 1 or 2, especially now with Christie gone, for MSU to have success this season.

Hauser holding his own guarding projected top-five pick Paolo Banchero (Duke) in the Round of 32 countered my generally pessimistic opinion of Hauser’s post-defense. Point being, if he can continue to play sound defense against his counterparts, his ability to stretch the floor could present a matchup problem.

Expecting that much seems like a stretch in itself, but this is what I think the Spartans could roll out for most of their minutes and significant end-of-season stretches.

The archetypal, Champions Classic starting five:

-Junior guard A.J. Hoggard

-Senior guard Tyson Walker

-Sophomore guard Jaden Akins

-Senior forward Malik Hall or senior forward Joey Hauser

-Junior center Mady Sissoko or freshman center Jaxon Kohler

-Sixth man – Redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser or senior forward Malik Hall

-Seventh man – who could give a burst off bench – freshman guard Tre Holloman

End of season plug in – freshman center Jaxon Kohler or junior center Mady Sissoko

This is the lineup I believe will debut when MSU tips off against Kentucky in Indianapolis. However, I could also see a starting lineup of Hoggard, Walker/Akins, Hall, Hauser and Kohler/Sissoko, with either Akins or Walker coming off the bench at guard, and either Kohler or Sissoko coming off the bench at center.

There are many possibilities, but Akins seems to be trending in the right direction.

I’ve always deliberated each possible version of MSU’s prospective starting lineup preceding each season.

While I thought Hall would start at the end of his freshman year in the 2019-2020 campaign, I couldn’t think of who would fill that fifth spot against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. I can’t claim to remember Thomas Kithier rounding out the starters, but there he was, alongside Cassius Winston, Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman.

I don’t think many others would’ve recalled Kithier starting either. But he fit the defense first, get-in-position forward that utilized his IQ, seniority and positional awareness to earn a starting spot to start the season. Hall did end up starting at the end of the season, but time and again, the Champions Classic lineup differs from the tournament lineup.

So, for this 2022-2023, let me be clear: Sissoko didn’t exactly exude stellar positional awareness or ability to defend more than one spot, but he has the physique that can mold into a stellar rebounder and post-defender. That is exactly what Izzo recruited him for, and while his development has unfolded much slower than you’d anticipate for a high four-star recruit (No. 34 in RSCI top 100) the raw ability is there.

So I think he’ll start the first game of the season, perhaps by default, but keep an eye on Kohler, the true freshman.

While Hauser is likely to start, he could actually be more productive off the bench, where he could come in to provide some instant offense and stretch the floor while avoiding the tougher defensive assignments. This was supposed to be the case more often last year, after Izzo claimed Hall would be a “sixth starter,” who would essentially platoon with Hauser, but it rarely worked out that way. Honestly, it wouldn’t be shocking to see both Hall and Hauser start in 2022-2023 with Hall at small forward and Hauser at power forward.

The point is, despite the thin roster, there is flexibility within it when it comes to potential lineups.

Current state of affairs

Izzo is not keen on adapting with the times on portal use or NIL deal aggressiveness (he believes players should be able to make money, but there needs to be more NIL rules in place to follow). He’s expressed this sentiment multiples times because, essentially, he doesn’t think it’s best for the players in the long run, and that being able to transfer out of tough situations at any time sends the wrong message.

It seems Izzo is sticking to his niche of recruiting high four-star, three-to-four-year players. Historically, he thrives under these circumstances.

Christie’s departure, for instance, could prove beneficial now that Akins — who’s expected to stay at least three years — will garner a larger role. The biggest caveat to this strategy is that teams like these stall out on the semifinal stage, where the talent disparity is routinely on display, especially a team with depth as thin as Michigan State’s right now.

This may end up reigning true again, but all is not lost because a five-star left earlier than anticipated.

It could be just the opposite.