Michigan State lost on the court during the exhibition game against Tennessee but everyone else won. Most importantly, the hope is this will be a win for the people of Maui recovering from the devastating wildfires.
This game was an exhibition. It doesn’t matter to the record for either team. Still it felt like a march madness showdown and had some fun elements that made it feel like a celebration of both programs. Overall the event as a whole gets an A+.
And anyone sad about the outcome for the Spartans should take solace in the lessons - the incredibly valuable lessons - the team learned playing this game.
But without further ado, the grades:
How the Grades Work: The “Game Specific Grade” is an attempt to step back and ignore who the Spartans are playing and look at the performance through the lens of just this game. The grade based “on a curve” is an attempt to take the performance and scale it based on the quality of the opponent.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Tennessee is very good. They are a top ten ranked team, with a very strong defense and clearly some offensive bite. That said, they were without two key players which should have weakened them against the Spartans. Beyond the challenge of the opponent, the Spartans are being graded during a non-traditional event with some key rules of the game not applying (example: no one was able to foul out - which saved Tennessee from playing without its big man for the entire second half). MSU gets some credit on the curve in this game due to the opponent, the situation and the time of year.
Offense: B+ (Game Specific Grade) / A- (On a curve based on competition)
The early offense in the game was atrocious. The shooters on the team (Tyson Walker particularly) sent up everything short. The team had no flow with AJ Hoggard early and the team recorded six turnovers in 4-minutes. Tennessee is very good defensively, but the start was awful.
The team got a lift as Carson Cooper was the first off the bench. The substitution coincided with Malik Hall’s clear decision to will his team back into it. That type of effort from Hall consistently would change the complexion of the season.
Throughout the first ten minutes sloppiness plagued the Spartans. The good news was they improved. They had almost all of their turnovers in the first 11 minutes of the game. Tennessee had about the same amount of turnovers at the 8-minute timeout in the first half, yet led by 14-points.
Overall the offense was just cold for the bulk of the first half. The defense created a 4-minute scoring drought for Tennessee that they could not capitalize on on offense. MSU is too good of a shooting team and has too many ball handlers capable of driving the lane to be this passive on offense. This finally started to turn at about the 6 minute mark. The offense fed off the defense and finally some drives to the hoop started converting. The half time score of 40-37 felt surprising considering the offensive struggles of much of the first half.
In the second half the Spartans were much less sloppy but still lacked execution. Jaden Akins and AJ Hoggard did not have great games. Malik Hall put in a ton of effort but was gassed at times. Even Tyson Walker - who had a great game in the end - had stretches where he chucked up shots that were not great.
Still the Spartans scored more than 80-points against a top tier defensive team in the country. That’s not bad for a game with so many other factors at play. The lack of execution brings down the objective grade, but the situation definitely bumps that grade up.
Defense: B- (Game Specific Grade) / B+ (On a curve based on competition)
The injection of the second line for Michigan State brought out more defensive intensity. The fast hands of Holloman and Fears started to even out the turnover battle. Still the first 10 minutes featured a run where Tennessee hit 11 straight shots. That is poor defense.
In the final ten minutes of the first half the defense played substantially better. At one point holding Tennessee scoreless for four minutes. Even as the offense was inconsistent it still let the Spartans close the half on a 20-9 run. Still, letting Tennessee score 40 in the first half was not a good look.
In the second half, the Spartans did not make enough defensive adjustments. Instead, Tennessee found ways to exploit multiple slip screens to open shots and fouls.
A combination of fatigue and strong execution by Tennessee left MSUs defense chasing all too often. As the season develops this execution needs to improve. It should with more seasoning for the young players and less rust on everyone.
From a grading perspective this was a B- performance. Tennessee is a very good competitor and the game was clearly tough for everyone to bring it all together. On the curve the score is higher, in part because of Tennessee’s quality but also just because of the situation. This is very early - and not even the actual season. This event had some odd pieces to it that may have made it hard for everyone to play at their best. Considering the circumstance, MSU played well against a talented team.
Transition: B- (Game Specific Grade) / B (On a curve based on competition)
Like everything else the transition game for MSU got off to a slow start. AJ Hoggard looked unable to push the ball on an admittedly stout Tennessee defense. Jeremy Fears looked a bit more able to push the ball up but it came with at least one early turnover as well.
On the defensive end, a lack of offensive rebounding led to more sprint out opportunities for Tennessee than this team should allow.
It was transition that helped MSU make a push coming out of the 8-minute timeout. Tyson Walker boxed out Tennessee’s center, rebounded the ball and fed Akins on a run out for a score. It only closed the gap to 11 but it forced a Tennessee timeout that started to bring some energy to the Spartans.
By the time Coen Carr took a solo drive all the way down the court and slammed it home the transition game had swung to the Spartans favor fully.
In the second half both teams started to tire. Michigan State tried to pick up full court defense and limit run outs with a bit better rebounding. They also struggled to complete transition baskets of their own, particularly about midway through the half.
Malik Hall had a stretch where he showed his ability to dominate, but he also looked gassed and could not always finish the great plays he was making. Still, as a sign of things to come it was very encouraging.
The final seconds of the game were defined by Holloman’s foul during transition. Holloman did bump his guy, but he might have been in a better position if the seniors on the court weren’t celebrating Hoggard’s three and had also dropped in to defend.
From a grade perspective MSU didn’t stand out in transition. They have the depth and talent to run around or through almost anyone. Against a physically larger Tennessee team missing two key players it was disappointing to not see more out of MSU’s transition game.
Coaching: A (Game Specific Grade) / A (On a curve based on competition)
This game didn’t matter. That is the most important factor when judging the coaching. Izzo uses early season games to test players, concepts, and build team skills for the late season. In the exhibition period he is even more prone to be experimental (e.g. last year he didn’t prep his players for one of the two exhibition games so they would experience what it was like to prep themselves).
This game saw some fascinating lineups and some players maybe got longer leashes than they would be given if the game truly mattered. Still he kept his team focused enough to recover from a 17-1 opening deficit and challenge the game in the final seconds.
Izzo deserves credit for being willing to get creative with lineups. His closing approach abandoned all the size he had on his bench. That is not an approach a less confident coach makes and it almost worked.
Overall, Izzo was laid back, embraced the moment (that he helped create) and I believe saw the value in this experience. Izzo on some level will love that the team got the wake up call of a 1-point loss without it having to blemish their formal records.
The grade is because of Izzo’s approach and his work to set this great event up. It was great for the fans, for the players, and for the people of Maui.
Overall: B (Game Specific Grade) / B+ (On a curve based on competition)
Michigan State played a season worth of development in one game. They started cold, sloppy and lost. They recovered and matched up against one of the top teams in the country. This team disappointed in all three phases for much of the game yet still scored 88 points and lost by one point on a suspect foul call.
MSU did what they could to put themselves in position to win after doing almost everything to lose the game early. That’s a good character test long term. Because the game technically doesn’t matter, fans can take solace that this game will teach the Spartans tons about themselves and what winning basketball takes.
The grade is only a B, because the Spartans should have been much better. The curve is a bit higher because Tennessee seems to be a legitimately good team and this situation is so early in the year that allowances need to be made.