Michigan State used hot shooting from three, balanced scoring, and some lock down defense to secure this 70-57 win.
9 players for MSU played more than 10 minutes. No one played more than 32 minutes (more on that below). And five players scored in double digits. Even allowing Rutgers to absolutely dominate the rebounds (42-34, and even more terrifying 18-6 offensive rebounds) and second chance points, Michigan State’s defense shut down Rutgers outside scoring and controlled the pace of most of the game.
This was a team win. This was a much much much needed win. This also shows a glimpse of one potential very interesting future.
Here are my shoot from the hip takes on the game. Like an end of shot clock heave, ready them and let me know what your deep shot after the game is in the comments.
POINT 1: Kohler GOOD, Sissoko BAD (and other creative thoughts on these two players)
You have two guys: Mady Sissoko and Jaxon Kohler. One has a double double, with 3-blocks and plays 23 minutes. The other has 2 points, 4 rebounds, and plays only 16 minutes. And those 16 minutes looked about 5 minutes more than they should have. Which player is which?
If you didn’t see the game, you’d most likely pick Sissoko to have the breakout game. You’d be as wrong as everyone that has started to count Jaxon Kohler out recently.
Kohler had the game of his young MSU career. This was not some magical, cannot miss, oh my goodness what an amazing one night affair. This looked like a talented player FINALLY putting it together.
The stat line looks incredible: 12 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks. Almost more impressive was the impact Kohler had when he was on the floor on everyone else. Unlike almost every other game this year, Kohler didn’t get exposed on defense. Even as Rutgers found ways to use quick passes to open up driving lanes to the basket, Kohler looked simply a step slow - not overpowered.
While it may have been because he was being compared to an all time awful game by Sissoko, Kohler looked decent on defense. Perhaps watching Carson Cooper earn more playing time by being sound defensively, Kohler did all the little things to stay on the court.
Early on it simply looked like a bonus that he scored 6-points in his first four minutes of action. As Kohler came out a second time in the first half, it started to look like more. And as Tom Izzo turned to Kohler to play the majority of the final 18 minutes of the game, it changed how MSU as a team looked on the floor.
Instead of having to slow down passes into the paint for the less sure handed Sissoko, Kohler showed soft hands catching and moving with the rocket passes fired at him. Instead of looking like a team of four jump shooters and a giant, useless desert in the middle of the court, the team looked like there was gravity back in the paint because Kohler was there.
Sissoko has a great knack for setting screens and popping shooters free. Kohler is not as talented in that area, instead his impact was re-balancing the floor offensively, forcing Rutgers to finally have to respect MSU’s interior offense, leaving MSUs shooters open. Something they took full advantage of, going a long overdue 12 of 22 from three.
Kohler’s ability to catch and pass sped up the entire offense. The ball started to move more freely in and out of the paint, allowing shooters and drivers to actually set up a fully fledged offense. These are crucial details that have been missing all season.
The breakout performance looked all the better as it came in stark contrast to a truly awful night for Mady Sissoko. Right from the start, Sissoko looked over matched. After playing reasonably well against the behemoth known as Zach Edey, Sissoko looked lost and out of sync the entire first half.
In the second half it got extremely worse (I don’t care if that’s not grammatical, it was THAT bad). In the first minute of play, Sissoko drops 2 defensive rebounds in a row, fouls on a third rebound attempt, then drops a THIRD offensive rebound. After that he is scored over with ease. Sissoko is pulled less than 60 seconds into the half - and arguably should not have come back.
All of Sissoko’s limitations were on display tonight. His inability to hold onto the ball on rebounds, his befuddlement with hot passes coming his way, and his seemingly non-existent traditional offensive game.
This is one game. Sissoko is still the best overall option to start games. His defense will be needed as MSU takes on Dickinson, Edey and the bigs at Illinois all again.
This is also one breakout game by a Freshman that has looked very limited defensively, and other than this game and the Nebraska game like he was playing offense on rims that were 11 feet high instead of 10.
If Kohler can keep this momentum. If he can play just good enough defense to stay on the floor and justify his offensive presence, the time split between Kohler and Sissoko (and Cooper - more on that in a moment) may be in for a drastic change. And potentially, MSU into a much better overall squad.
POINT 2: Enter the big man lineup - even if it looked different than I expected
Prior to this game I wrote a breakdown on who should take Malik Hall’s minutes. While I feel vindicated that the move to substitute for Malik Hall was better solved by going to two big men lineups that saved Hauser, I’ll admit I predicted it would look different.
At the 12 minute timeout in the first half, Tom Izzo got creative. The lineup out of the timeout was: Hoggard, Walker, Akins and two big men: Cooper and Sissoko. I’d figured Kohler’s offensive game would make him the natural fit playing the super sized power forward role.
Izzo had other plans. And for the most part it looked serviceable. In the first half, it did slow MSU’s offense a bit (arguably because it took Holloman and Kohler off the court after they sparked the run over the previous 4-minutes). But it wasn’t a disaster.
In the second half, MSU went to it twice more. Once more with Cooper at the four and Mady at the five, and another time the unthinkable of Kohler at the five with Cooper at the four. The second iteration felt like an experiment based on Kohler’s performance during the game.
Both times in the second half it looked a lot better. Cooper looked less lost standing out on the three point line, and particularly with Kohler rolling, the offense was able to keep the ball moving and find open shots.
This lineup was a big part of Joey Hauser playing one of his lowest minute totals of the season, clocking in at just 31 minutes. Hauser seemed to benefit from this, hitting a fresh looking three late - after looking exhausted down the stretch in the previous two losses.
There are still a lot of questions to answer.
Is Cooper really the best option at the four? He seems very limited in his outside shot, and defenses may adjust to him like teams did when Whitens played a bit too much. I.e. defenses could literally just ignore Cooper on the three point line and play 5 on 4.
Could Kohler learn the four spot, and trade places with Cooper (as I suggested earlier today)? Kohler did attempt a three (that did not lead to Izzo immediately setting the floor on fire), and could at least be a semi credible threat out there. Then again, if the coaches feel like it’s too much for the emerging Kohler to take on a new position AND find consistency in his game, Cooper may have to be the option.
Right now this lineup that is born our of utter necessity may be one of the few silver linings of the Malik Hall situation. Or it could be a gimmick MSU is forced to use to give Hauser a break, and they just hope its able to buy 3-4 minute stretches to keep Hauser at 34-35 minutes a game instead of 38+.
It’s intriguing, with a lot more testing needed.
POINT 3: Tonight proved the value and importance of rest for this thin rotation
Joey Hauser hit a late three where he looked natural and bouncy on the release. On defense, he looked locked in in the final 5-6 minutes. His play contributed to Rutgers being held without a basket for 7 of the final 8 minutes of the game (a run ruined by two late, semi garbage time baskets by Rutgers). After watching Hauser slowly get run into the ground over the last few weeks, this was a welcome relief.
In contrast, Tyson Walker looked like a guy still tired from the Purdue game. Walker’s 30-points performance against Purdue would take it out of anyone. For stretches - particularly early in the game Walker looked serviceable, but flat. When his defensive intensity picked up, so too did the entire team about midway through the first half. His 9 points in the first half also helped put MSU up. Even tired, Walker looked good.
But fatigue could also be a factor in the nearly 20 minutes of game time Walker went without taking a shot (stretching from the end of the first half into the 6 minute mark left in the second half).
Whether fatigue, or Rutgers focusing their potent defense fully on Walker, the crucial point scoring shooting guard only added 3 points in the second half. In a game with balanced scoring across the MSU roster, this is not meant to be nitpicking. It’s meant to highlight how important it is with 6+ weeks left in the regular season, to make sure this roster does not grind its players to dust.
A thin rotation team that plays its key players constantly 35+ is begging to trade extra effort wins with exhausted losses. The move to a “big man” lineup is one way to get Joey Hauser a rest. Tre Holoman finding ways to expand his glimpses of game altering skill into longer stretches would be another massive way to help. Notably, Holoman had one of those paired with Kohler early in the first half. Then mostly played well, though not nearly as well later in the game. Pierre Brooks finding ways to be on the court without getting exposed defensively is also a key.
In short, the entire roster needs to contribute. Tonight, 9 players did that playing more than ten minutes each. All nine of those players need to make sure their individual contribution floor continues to rise to make sure the whole team thrives.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what your takeaways are from the game in the comments.