Michigan State lost to Duke in a game the Blue Devils mostly controlled. After an intense opening 15 minutes that saw both teams struggle to score, Duke found a way to build an 11-point lead at half.
Despite spirited play and a welcome return of the Spartans’ shooting touch, that gap proved too large down the stretch.
Here are my three points (and 1) on the game you should know.
POINT 1: Izzo Promised This Would Be a Veteran Game and It Was
Michigan State was expected to be a dominant team through its combination of veteran starting lineup and incredibly talented freshmen. The start of the season saw the three freshmen playing this year show flashes of major potential and the veterans struggle. Izzo promised this game would rely heavily on the veterans and they would have to deliver.
The veterans didn’t deliver a win but they did show they could be the answer for this year we expected.
Tyson Walker and Malik Hall (more on him below) had the standout games. Walker is still inexplicably struggling at the line, but he is the engine this team relies on this year. He tends to start slow and let the rest of the team take their swings but he continues to heat up and bend games to his will as the second half gets going.
Going into the game AJ Hoggard was at the forefront of concerns for this year’s team. The point guard for Michigan State is always important. A senior point guard that has shown they can dominate stretches of the season has high expectations. In two games and two exhibition games so far Hoggard has been a disappointment.
Early on Hoggard struggled. The offense didn’t seem to respond to him as he barked for people to move and use motion. His own efforts resulted in missed layups in transition and some passed up open shots. A relatively early seat just before the 16-minute timeout brought in Fears.
Finally at 5:32 in the first half Hoggard woke up and drove and converted. It was at that point the best looking drive of the young season for the senior point guard. It sparked the most active stretch by Hoggard that included a great assist to Cooper and an unfortunately missed wide open three in transition. You take the good with the bad with Hoggard and four assists in the first 15 minutes of the game was a strong improvement.
Hoggard looked more engaged in the second half and tallied 8 assists in the game. It was a step forward. The offensive scoring and pressure on the defense still needs to come.
Jaden Akins also quietly had a good game. 11 points and 8 rebounds is a big step forward. Akins looked much more like the player he was late last season. He mostly played the corners on offense and crashed the boards for rebounds and put backs. The plan this year is for him to be more of a creator and an attacker that flexes defenses around him. That still may come, but from passive non-entity early this season to this is a big improvement.
The game was a big step forward for a group of veterans whom much more is expected. The outcome wasn’t what they wanted, but the on court improvements may be more important in the long run.
POINT 2: Michigan State May be Offensively a Center Away from Something Scary - For the Third Year in a Row
Michigan State has been a center away on offense for three years. Unfortunately, those three years coincide with Mady Sissoko being on campus. He shouldn’t take the blame entirely but he is part of the problem. Sissoko has been tantalizingly close to being a power. It’s kept MSU focused on developing him and seems to have scared off potential recruits.
In this game, Sissoko and Cooper played well defensively. Their effort clearly helped throughout the game. Cooper contributed 8 rebounds and a few timely defensive plays - none more obvious than his heads up steal in the final minutes of the game.
The problem was both of them cost the team at least a dozen baskets. Particularly Sissoko had countless times in the first half where he slipped to the basket, found himself with a clear shot and missed it. He would juggle the ball, double clutch, or wait for the defense to crowd him and have to give up the ball.
Sissoko’s understanding of the flow of the game is leaps and bounds better than it used to be. Still his weak grip on the ball, hesitancy to go up with the ball quickly and lack of touch near the rim make too many of his post touches possession killers.
Cooper had more than a few similar incidents throughout the game.
MSU has other problems - specifically its shooting - that are contributing to their offensive struggles. Still, the lack of production from the center position is crippling the team in key offensive sets. If they can’t get some offense from the center position the team will have to do what they did last year, which is run an offense that essentially ignores the center position.
POINT 3: Malik Hall Starts to Look Like Malik Hall
Malik Hall was a center point of MSU’s offense from the start. An early three showed a glimpse of the breakout game he would have. The first half progress was cut short by a dumb second foul. The start of the second half changed the complexion of his season.
9-points in the first five minutes of the second half was masterful. The points came from everywhere. A three pointer, a great transition play, at the free throw line, and even a fantastic turnaround jumper over Duke’s 7-foot star Filipowski (Something he did again later in the game).
Hall has been a target for a lot of fan discontent. This is the type of performance that should remind people he has a lot of upside, even if it is frustratingly inconsistent.
The problem against Duke was fouls cut his game short. Like the first half, Hall picked up two early fouls in the second half to give him 4 fouls before the 12-minute mark.
Hall returned at the 7-minute mark and immediately contributed again, scoring down low. On the next offensive possession Hall drew a foul on Filipowski. It was a game where he contributed throughout. Down the stretch MSU used a small ball lineup with him at the five, this seems to be the go to approach in the tight games (counting Tennessee’s exhibition) this year.
Fans may not be happy, but Malik Hall is crucial for this team. The hope is performances like this become the norm, not the exception.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): Coen Carr is Becoming Essential
Coen Carr is playing his way into essential territory. His impact in the final three minutes of the first half was needed. As Duke was heating up and MSU still couldn’t buy a bucket Carr picked everyone up. He drove the lane more in a 60-second stretch than the rest of the team combined in the first half. He rebounded, moved with intensity on both ends and used his athleticism to alter a few shots in the closing stretch of the half.
In a game where everyone for the Spartans was cold or in foul trouble (or in many cases both), Carr brought a notable lift on the court.
His limitations are still evident. He is not always in the right position on defense and his outside shooting is not yet an option (though on a team that can’t hit a wide open three, he isn’t really any worse than anyone else). Still, his aggression and commitment made an early impact.
In the second half Carr again became essential. Malik Hall picked up his fourth foul at the 12:38 mark and Carr entered the game. Carr then sparked an 8-0 run with a series of blocks and a high flying dunk. His defense created transition and his movement on offense helped Tyson Walker find space to shoot.
The fanbase wants more of Xavier Booker. They blame Hall for holding Booker back. The reality is the play of Coen Carr is taking the minutes that was envisioned for Booker at the four spot.