Michigan State hosted Southern Illinois for the second game of the season. The outcome seemed significantly more important coming off the opening loss to James Madison.
Michigan State came out and eventually took care of business, winning 74-51. The score show a blow out, the performance on the court leave a lot more questions.
Here’s my three point shot (on a team that apparently cannot hit a three pointer) about this win.
POINT 1: This Was a Raw Skill Win, Not a Better Team Win
“Even though they are up 19 points, [Michigan State] is simply not playing well.” This was Big Ten Announcer Robbie Hummel’s summation with about 7-minutes left in the second half. It fits this game. Michigan State had a huge scoreboard win but looked like a team still in search of a lot of things.
Unlike James Madison, Southern Indiana lacked the size and athleticism to keep within striking distance of MSU. Michigan State’s athletes exploited their advantages consistently in transition. On defense they used superior strength and length to make up for slow rotations and late help defense.
The size differential impacted Southern Indiana in a number of ways, most obviously the foul differential. They didn’t help themselves by simply shooting badly.
MSU also shot poorly. The complete lack of three point shooting is incomprehensible (yes, I’m running out of words to describe this). The offensive sets for the Spartans often looked weak and disorganized. The team looks like it is crying out for on-court leadership - something AJ Hoggard is simply not providing this year.
The young guys for MSU were the real spark tonight. That helps make it make sense that the Spartans would win big but look sloppy. That’s what happens with freshmen leading the way. The concern is the veteran presence that now for the third game in a row looks all too often absent.
Even in a game where Akins (more on him in a moment) and Hall found more ways to contribute (and honestly, Hall has found ways to contribute positively in all three contests of consequence this year - even if it looks like he has no idea how to shoot a jumper for some reason), it felt like the offense got stagnant with the older lineup on the floor.
Michigan State has a shocking amount of basics to work on for an experienced team. Everything from help defense, to rotating on offense and defense to rebounding need to be cleaned up. Izzo has proven he can do it during the season time and again. It’s just shocking to see the team need it this year.
POINT 2: Akins Showed Up (Finally) and is Still Finding Himself
The veteran struggles of the Spartans may be best summed up by the play of Jaden Akins. Akins came into this season expected to be an all around point generator and a stout defender. The defense has occasionally been on display this year, but the offense has mostly been absent.
Jaden Akins made his first signature play of the year, a powerful dunk driving from the wing in transition. Anytime Akins is struggling shooting, this is the approach he needs to take. In pre-Coen Carr world, Akins leaping ability was the stuff of practice legend, and occasionally game highlights. That move made it look like the magic is still in there.
Unfortunately about midway through the first half Akins had a series where he struggled in transition. On the first play he drove the lane then tried to turn and pop back to Hoggard for what most likely Akins thought would be a spot up three. The communication was off and Hoggard literally ran into the ball and it ended up bouncing off of him and a turnover. A play later, Akins forced a steal then went up for a layup that he left short. Again forcing a turnover on defense, Akins had the ball all alone and carried it low at his waist for a big dunk and got stripped. The strip was a foul but it didn’t look pretty for a veteran player.
Akins kept battling and had another signature moment at about the 7 minute mark. After a full court running show for a few possessions in a row, Akins settled the Spartans down with a shake and bake drive that ended in a pull up jumper. It was pretty and confident. The type of shot expected from Akins this year.
The first half ended with a box score displaying the all around game Akins is capable of: 6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals.
In the second half it was more up and down. He started to heat up a bit late as he excelled in transition. The concern was those transition opportunities were balanced by three turnovers.
Akins is still finding himself. His outside shot is absent - along with his entire team. That should come. The game he can control is his driving and motion on the court. His speed separated him on the court last year. In two games, that has not been nearly evident enough this year.
POINT 3: Mady Sissoko Quietly Had a Good Game - It Still May Not Mean He is the Best Option
Sissoko earned a double double in the game. He (mostly) avoided fouling, and set a lot of valuable screens. Sissoko may simply be what he is going to be: A big man with raw talent. It’s unclear what a finished, or polished, Sissoko would even look like at this point. That may be academic, as it doesn’t look like it will be seen in a Spartan uniform.
Still, Sissoko is providing lift and energy to the team. He is incredibly limited in post moves, but his rebounding is valuable to a team clearly struggling to box out.
Behind him, Carson Cooper also had a decent game. Cooper still looks like the better long term option for Michigan State. In this game though, Sissoko was better on the floor and in the box score.
Fans should get used to that trade off. Some nights Sissoko will work, other nights Cooper will suck up more minutes as the much better option. At least until Jaxon Kohler gets back, it also looks like MSU will be aggressive with smaller lineups featuring Hall, and/or potentially Booker at the five spot.