Michigan State pulled out a hard fought victory in a low scoring game against in-state rival Michigan. Winning 59-53, MIchigan State had a fantastic game plan, showed a ton of grit, and turned University of Michigan’s best player into their biggest weakness.
Here is my 3-point take on the game. Like an end of shot clock heave, read them and let me know your deep shots after the game in the comments.
POINT 1: Mady and Team Defense won the matchup against Hunter Dickinson - Proving MSU is just fine at center
Rivalry games like this one are never short of storylines. Coach Izzo has made it plain his entire career that he CARES about beating Michigan. Even in the relatively polite years when Michigan had John Beilein running the show, this game meant something to the Hall of Famer.
The most prevalent story line for this game was driven by University of Michigan’s “star” center, and wannabe knock-off WWE villain, Hunter Dickinson. Combine Dickinson’s unending offensive word vomit (get caught up here) with the long standing Spartan fandom anxiety about our own center position, and the dominant pregame view was a center vs. center battle.
The Spartan’s Mady Sissoko showed up in a way that should end the discussion and anxiety about MSU’s center position. Admittedly, Sissoko got a lot of help. That shouldn’t take away from a fantastic individual effort, even though it was helped by an awesome team effort and phenomenal game plan.
Let’s start with the statistics. In the end, the box score shows a fairly run of the mill game for Dickinson. He led all scorers with 18 points and led his team with 7 rebounds. The point total is right on his season average, and the rebounds are just below it. That said, Dickinson had been averaging almost 25 points over the previous few games, and nearly 10 rebounds. Against MSU, he was mostly contained except for a 7-point run towards the end of the game.
Notably, that 7-point mini explosion included an end of game heaved three, a shot MSU would be willing to let Dickinson take all game, and a 6-point mini run that included 2 baskets by Dickinson with Mady Sissoko on the bench.
When Sissoko was on the floor, Dickinson looked frustrated. Other than a short period to start the second half, Dickinson played almost no consistent positive role in the game.
MSU threw multiple defensive looks at him. Most often MSU sent help. Everything from a soft hedge, to a hard double team, to a few dig downs by AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker, Dickinson was being attacked on all sides. Even when they left Mady alone - a well deployed tactic to confuse and create a sense of unpredictability for Dickinson, Mady mostly held his own.
Against one of the best offensive big men in the conference, that is more than enough. Mady’s play and the team-wide effort plan forced Dickinson to try to distribute to “shooters” that may be left open by the double teams. Michigan’s young guards were not ready for the moment. The team’s “shooters” (this term will get air quotes around it until they shoot better than 35%) had an abysmal shooting night as MSU’s defense often rotated to the right person to contest the shot.
Mady played hard, and it took Michigan going to its backup center to actually draw fouls. While Mady ending the game with 4-fouls, all drawn by Michigan Backup Tarris Reed Jr, his work on Dickinson was foul free, and disciplined.
MSU can get more out of Sissoko. The game opened with multiple opportunities for Sissoko to score. Sissoko will calm down, and learn to exploit those in the future.
Right now, his job is to stop the opposing team’s big man and pull down rebounds. He pulled down 7 rebounds (second on the team) and helped neutralize Hunter Dickinson offensively. Job done. MSU will be just fine at the center position this season.
POINT 2: There may not be an alpha, but the core 4 is pretty darn good
Basketball is a team sport obsessed with individual stars. At every level, pro, college, high school, AAU,etc., the focus seems to shift more and more to one player being a rock star and everyone else being put in positions to help that person succeed. Call it the Lebron James effect, the YouTube era of highlights effect, or simply a reality that one incredible talent can change the dynamic of an entire season (before that talent immediately departs for the NBA), the focus for most teams is to identify an “alpha dog”.
These alpha dogs are valued for a variety of reasons. If you are lucky enough to have one of these game changing talents, then your team gets carried to wins you don’t expect. It also simplifies everything. From fans knowing who to wear the jersey for, to coaches knowing who to give the ball to in crunch time.
A knock against MSU this year has been that the team doesn’t have that alpha.
Malik Hall was feted as the possible go-to guy at the start of the season. A lack of history of being that guy and the injury lay off has largely rendered that moot. Tyson Walker has shown flashes early, having plays against Kentucky and Gonzaga written up for him in crunch time. Hoggard has taken over stretches of games, making a case to be that guy at some point this year, or maybe next year. Hauser may not have the makeup of the go to guy in most fans minds, but his shooting and maturity make him a potential option in any end of game scenario.
So what does a team do when they have four guys that COULD be the alpha, but none of them seem to actually be it night in and night out? Well, they win games.
In this game, they won ugly. And they won because of the efforts of all four of these guys.
Hoggard, Walker and Hall combined for 44 points on the night, or to put it another way 75% of the Spartans offense. Even Hauser, in the middle of a simply atrocious night of shooting (3 of 13, with 1 of 7 from three), still chipped in 7-points. More importantly, he led all rebounders with 10 rebounds and led the Spartans with 34 minutes played. He played the five spot in crucial small ball lineups, he had excellent help defense against Hunter Dickinson, and he had a crucial tap back to maintain the lead when things got dicey in the closing minutes.
The team may not have an alpha. What it has instead is a solid core four, that can lead this team through some very difficult games.
POINT 3: Small ball will close games, and the lineup is starting to come into focus
Injuries have largely determined MSU’s lineups and rotations this year. While Tom Izzo definitely did his standard rotation tinkering in December, the starting lineup and crunch time players have largely been a function of who is available with both Jaden Akins and Malik Hall missing significant time.
This game you saw a glimpse of what MSU wants to do down the road.
MSU started Hoggard, Walker, Akins, Hauser and Sissoko. This starting lineup seems pretty set, with the only question being who Malik Hall replaces upon his inevitable return to the lineup. The most likely is Akins, followed closely by Walker. Whoever doesn’t start, is going to be the sixth man, with Jaxon Kohler potentially showing up as the consistent 7th man if Mady gets into trouble early.
In this game, Izzo pulled Walker early for Hall, and seemed to protect the point guard in the first half by limiting his play. This most likely was in case Walker’s recent early foul trouble continued, or presumably as an insurance policy for potential foul trouble for Hoggard. Izzo knew in this game that MSUs major advantage was the backcourt. Having that nullified by losing both point guards early would have been a huge problem.
Beyond that, he rode Mady Sissoko much deeper into the first half than normal. Jaxon Kohler didn’t check in till after the 12:15 timeout/media timeout by Michigan. In recent games, Kohler has been platooning with Sissoko, often trading blocks of the game. No doubt in part due to the fears that Kohler would get eaten up by Dickinson, Kohler was limited for much of the game into a role where he spelled Sissoko rather than platooned.
If Mady can avoid fouls (see the “and 1 below”), this appears to be the preference for Izzo. Playing Sissoko 22-25 minutes is probably his ideal.
While Sissoko will be playing more, small ball will be the go to in crunch times.
To end the first half MSU rolled out: Hoggard, Walker, Akins, Hall and Hauser. This small ball lineup is compromised defensively with Hauser forced to guard someone like Dickinson one-on-one, but it should create a huge offensive advantage.
In the close of the second half, Izzo again went to this lineup. A few times, he platooned Akins and Sissoko for offense and defense respectively. Against a team that does NOT have a Hunter Dickinson like player - and even at times with them - it looks like the small ball lineup will finish most games.
If Hauser can shoot even near his season average, the offensive gain this lineup provides should offset any defensive liabilities. As an added bonus, it makes the other team question any strategy that includes fouling, as every single player on the court shoots free throws well.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): The refs… were just confusing and hurt this game
It’s cliche for a fan or commentator to blame the refs. Refs do their best. I sincerely believe that. Still, sometimes their best is just not good enough.
Beyond the few absolutely blown calls (awarding Michigan possession after their Tschetter clearly knocked it out being the most obvious), the most concerning part of this game was the element of confusion the refs introduced into this game.
In the first half, there were a few head scratchers, but mostly the refs let both teams play. The game was physical, and I have to admit, letting Mady and Dickinson bang down low does more often than not benefit MSU. Sissoko fouls at a much higher rate.
The confusion comes in the second half. The refs called an entirely different game. Mady went from no fouls in the first half guarding Dickinson, to three lightning fast touch fouls called against him when he was guarding backup Michigan center Tarris Reed, Jr.
While Reed played much more aggressively than Dickinson, it seemed like the refs developed a completely different standard for calling fouls when Reed was on the floor than when Dickinson was matching up against Sissoko.
The fouls on Sissoko, as well as the incredible imbalance of foul calls in the second half almost changed the outcome. Michigan State being called for 8 fouls, while Michigan had 2, 15 minutes into the second half was perplexing. Michigan was playing physical, just like MSU. The Wolverines had a few hard fouls get wiped out during the game (that first half shot clock violation wiping out the foul on Dickinson had me screaming almost as loudly as Tom Izzo) in odd ways, but overall it just felt like the refs weren’t being consistent.
I don’t subscribe to any conspiracy theory on this. I think it’s much easier to believe these refs had a bad game, then actively sat back and went “how do we keep MIchigan in this game.”
That said, the officials’ actions created confusion on the court and created a strategic imbalance to the end of the game that almost cost the Spartans the win. That type of inconsistency is not acceptable from a regular Big Ten officiating crew.