After Tuesday night’s disappointing loss to Duke in the Champions Classic, MSU returned home to face Butler in the final edition of the Gavitt Games between the Big Ten and Big East. The Spartans desperately needed something to go right, and it seems that they found something on Friday night.
Thad Matta and Tom Izzo faced off for the 29th time in their careers, and Izzo extended his lead in their head to head series with a solid 74-54 victory over the Bulldogs. Here are my key takeaways from the win.
Carson Cooper Gets the Start
After using the same lineup for the first three games of the season, Tom Izzo swapped out big men against Butler, starting Carson Cooper at center instead of Mady Sissoko. Sissoko has had a tough time since the early stages of last season, and Cooper has been steadily improving. In his postgame comments, Tom Izzo was careful to tamp down any controversy, making it clear that both centers would be getting similar minutes, between 15 and 22 minutes a piece, and that they’re complementary players - with Cooper moving better laterally and Sissoko moving better vertically. Cooper, in his first start, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 2 shots. Sissoko hauled in 6 boards.
AJ Hoggard Turns a Corner?
It isn’t a secret that one of the keys to MSU’s success this season is the play of AJ Hoggard. The senior guard had been ice cold offensively in the first three games of the season, failing to score double digits, and looking a bit lost. Friday night started similarly, as Hoggard was called for a travel on a 3 point shot that clanged off the front of the rim, and missed three shots before scoring his first point of the night with 3:10 to play in the first half. Hoggard would end up with 5 points in the first half, and then add 9 more in the second. By the end of the game, Hoggard had found a rhythm offensively, and a swagger we hadn’t seen before this season. Is this the beginning of a tangible turnaround for Hoggard? We’ll know more Sunday when Alcorn State visits East Lansing, and we’ll know a lot more on Thanksgiving Day when the Spartans take on the formidable Arizona Wildcats.
Pierre Brooks’ Return
Pierre Brooks’ time in East Lansing never quite went as planned. He was a highly touted recruit with the physical tools and skill you need to be a high level college basketball player, but for whatever reason, it never came together in the green and white. On Friday night, he made his return to the Breslin Center, and he was not received warmly by the MSU faithful.
One Izzone member is relentless taunting Pierre Brooks. I get it. All's fair. But man, it's a bit tone deaf and also sends the message to all these players that your love is conditional. That said, the guy is probably 20. And 20-year-olds are often stupid. I certainly was.— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) November 18, 2023
The Izzone was generally relentless in their booing and taunting and cajoling of Brooks, which led to emotions boiling over at one point, where he was given a technical foul after dunking over Coen Carr. Brooks played well, scoring 13 points, in line with his season average against much weaker competition. With what is essentially free agency in the college game, one has to wonder if this sort of response will be the norm going forward when transfers come back to their old stomping grounds as it becomes more common. Both coaches seemed genuinely happy for Brooks in their postgame comments.
Suffocating Defense, Fool’s Gold, and the Perils of Early Season Basketball
Michigan State was far more talented than their 1-2 mark coming into Friday’s game. Butler was nowhere near as good as their 3-0 mark would indicate. Basketball is a game of accumulation, as each individual basket doesn’t carry the weight of a touchdown in football or a goal in hockey, but the body of work over the 40 minutes of game time is what matters.
The season is the same way.
Butler obliterated Eastern Michigan, East Tennessee State, and Southeast Missouri State, scoring 81 points or more in each game. Against MSU? 54. That’s not to say that Butler won’t become a very good team as the season goes on, but their first three games were the equivalent of the clearance Halloween candy you grab on November 1. Empty calories.
MSU lost to what looks like a legitimately good James Madison team, clobbered Southern Indiana, and then lost to Duke on a neutral floor. The Spartans are finding themselves, navigating a major injury to Jaxon Kohler, and alternating real tests with tuneups. That’s all to say that while the Spartans looked very good on Friday night, and there are positives to build on, the season is about the accumulation of moments and maximizing the opportunities that a team finds. If the Spartans shoot like they did against Butler, and bring the same defensive intensity that they did, there will be plenty of opportunities in their future.