Michigan State won. That’s the important thing. The fact that they won by a lot against Southern Indiana (74-51) is nice but not the whole story.
The various segments of the Spartans performance demand a closer look and at times some harsh grading.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Southern Indiana is simply not great. They have a few guys who will excel in their conference games, but those players do not have the size or athleticism to compete with Big Ten programs. MSU had so much more raw talent on the floor. This means the grades are going to be a bit harsher. MSU should blow this team out, that means it’s not enough to win by a lot, you have to win and play well in key areas.
Michigan State started out struggling in half court offense. The game plan early included two post ups for Malik Hall. Then after early squad wide substitutions the focus seemed to be getting Carson Cooper some post touches. It was good to see the team try to exploit the block, but the results led to stagnant offense and low scoring. If it weren’t for transition scoring early, MSU would have had the start they’ve had the last two games* (*counting Tennessee exhibition as a game in this sentence), namely slow.
It took almost 12 minutes in the first half for the Spartans to have an impressive offensive set. A curl at the top of the key left Akins mostly open but he gave up the ball to a cutting Sissoko for a great dunk. That was the fast moving, organized and selfless MSU offense this team found late last year.
Still the first half saw offensive struggles. Michigan State blew the score wide open with tough defense and transition offense. The true set offense all too often looked stagnant and lacking finish. AJ Hoggard looked absent again early on and while Fears looked exciting in transition, his ability to spur the offense in the half court is still developing. At about the 4-minute timeout Izzo took particular issue with Fears deciding to go iso rather than run any sort of team motion.
Ending the first half 0-5 from three is now at a point of confounding. The 1 for 25 slump MSU has opened the season’s first three halves with is shocking. And while the Spartans were up 37-14 in the first half, the pace that point total had MSU on was less than 80. Considering the opponent that felt low.
The second half opened with a rare quality offensive set spearheaded by the first drive where AJ Hoggard bulled his way to the basket. Then some sloppy play and heavy fouls by Southern Indiana disrupted the Spartans. Then the Spartans derailed themselves.
MSU scored the opening basket of the second half then didn’t have a field goal again until 14:37- after two timeouts. It took the second line coming in for a true offensive set to generate offense.
The Spartans offense finally looked functional with a lineup of: Fears, Holloman, Walker, Booker and Cooper. It helped that Booker put together two of the best minutes of any player in this young season. This most stark difference is the aggressiveness. The younger players look like they are moving and flowing to the basket. The veterans look stagnant.
In the end, Michigan State looks rough on offense.
The lack of three point shooting is limiting this team hugely. They are not able to spread the floor, and their offensive sets allow the defense to sag off and clog the lanes.
The lack of leadership and aggressiveness from the point guard position is also leaving the team in 1st gear, rather than 5th gear all too often. AJ Hoggard’s play has to be the biggest question of the year so far.
Ending with 74 points against a team as limited as Southern Indiana has to be considered a disappointment.
The defense early looked good on the stat sheet but ugly to the eye. Southern Indiana started 1 for 11 from the floor. Still they were creating openings and drawing fouls on the Spartans. The second line particularly (Fears, Holloman, Carr, Booker, and Sissoko - who is technically a starter) struggled in transition defense and keeping their assignments.
The starters played much better early on, holding the dam and forcing a run of three turnovers in four possessions. It triggered a 7-0 run over more than four minutes for the Spartans.
The veteran starting unit - whether with Sissoko or Cooper at the 5 - looked more organized and confident on defense. It makes sense and should be remembered as a reason the freshmen are not dominating the minutes in the first week of the season.
Michigan State’s defense created a 19-2 run that blew the doors off the game. The Spartan defense was locked in and harassing the ball constantly. Steals, influenced shots, and fighting for rebounds left Southern Indiana little opportunity to keep pace.
The second half opened with MSU up big and it felt like the defense knew they were up big. To put it plainly MSU looked happy to run around with Southern Indiana and hope the Screaming Eagles would continue their terrible shooting. Once that shooting touch returned, even for a moment, Izzo was forced to take an early timeout. It’s becoming redundant, but the starting five are too experienced to keep starting halves this unfocused.
Allowing Southern Indiana to go on a 12-0 run is simply not acceptable. Even if that was mostly driven by the offense becoming completely inept, MSU needs to be able to rely on its defense (and effort on defense) to spell them through the poor offensive stretches.
MSU clamped down again (or Southern Indiana lost its brief hot touch) but still looked sloppy at times. Often late in the game, MSU was covering mistakes with simply it’s length and athleticism. Mistakes that would have been capitalized on by a better opponent were erased by a Spartan roster that clearly had significantly more raw talent at every position.
The outcome and stat sheet showed a solid defensive effort. The concern is the opponent was not a challenge offensively, yet created a few moments where MSU struggled to contain them.
Right from the start Michigan State looked like they were playing with more energy and focus. A good Malik Hall rebound on the first defensive stand led to a fast outlet and transition led by AJ Hoggard and finished by Mady Sissoko under the basket drawing a foul. That is the speed this team is supposed to be playing with this year. This was also one of the few good plays by Hoggard in yet another disappearing act game.
For most of the game, the first half particularly, MSU lived and died by the transition offense. It wasn’t all pretty but it was most of the offense generated.
Akins particularly featured a bunch of up and down moments. Midway through the first half, there was a beautiful drive from the wing in transition that ended in a flying dunk. Then there were back to back transition opportunities botched by Akins. Then a pull up jumper in transition that was fantastic. He’s got all the skills to thrill in transition, but the game still hasn’t fully come together this year.
The rest of the team felt the same. Even when pushing the ball, a number of open alley oops (multiple to Carr, one or two to Booker) ended in no points.
A fascinating - and concerning in a way - development was the evidence that Fears looked better pushing the offense in transition then AJ Hoggard.
The youth movement helped fuel a day where MSU dominated in transition. The only tempering issue was the transition defense was helped by Southern Indiana completely failing to convert some open layups. Other teams won’t be as kind to the Spartans.
Coach Izzo was in an interesting situation in this game. Izzo loves to use these tune-up style games to mix and match lineups and experiment with play calls highlighting different players. Coming off the loss to James Madison, and seeing the offense start slow again, meant the game felt more like Izzo was pushing to find lineups that could get anything done, rather than experimenting casually.
True to Izzo’s word from his outburst in the post game press conference after James Madison the freshman played more. Izzo did not look afraid to bench AJ Hoggard for stretches, giving run to Fears and Holloman.
This game saw Booker play significant minutes for the first time. The skills are evident there as are the struggles defensively. Booker will get the fans excited, but there are enough signs of concerns (not boxing out, not setting screens effectively, not seeming like he knows where he should be in offensive sets, etc.) that I’d bet Izzo reduces those minutes against Duke.
Still Izzo has not gotten his veterans (other than Walker) to look great. Akins did start to wake up a bit in this game, and Hall continued to contribute positively while frustrating every viewer with his limitations (he needs to go see a shot doctor - that outside stroke was ugly). Hoggard is struggling.
Izzo’s major contribution in this game was the rotation and it looks like he handled a deep roster full of pieces that do not all clearly fit together yet well. Still, the seeming slow start for the veterans is a concern. Particularly when that slow start displays shortcomings on fundamentals like rebounding.
Yes, it’s harsh to be that rough on Michigan State after a huge numeric victory. The reality is they deserve it. Southern Indiana barely belonged on the same court with MSU based on talent. And yet, they gave MSU trouble in too many ways.
Outside of transition offense, MSU played very poorly. It’s more than bad shooting, it’s a lack of rhythm and cohesion as well as fundamentals.
It’s redundant, but the team is too experienced and too talented to have those types of warts, no matter how early we are in the season.