Michigan State controlled the Butler Bulldogs in their 74-54 win. The Bulldogs put forth a lot of effort but could not make enough shots to give the Spartans a real game.
Despite their offensive deficiencies, the game was tough enough to give some strong insights into the Spartans current level. Here is how that level graded out.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Butler is a decent team. They may make some noise in the Big East this year if their collection of transfers gel better than expected. In terms of Michigan State opponents, they are not on the same level as Duke, or potentially even James Madison. This means the grades should be taken with a grain of salt. Particularly MSU’s defensive grade may objectively been a bit higher than what is awarded because Butler is not a powerhouse on offense.
The offense started the game hot. They looked like a different team than at any point this young season. Malik Hall posting up over former Spartan Pierre Brooks provided an element Butler could not counter. Adding to the hot start was Akins hitting a step in three and Hoggard driving and dishing for a Walker step in three. The entire starting lineup for the Spartans looked like they were playing downhill with confidence.
The early offensive momentum disappeared as Coach Izzo worked in new lineups. More than just rotating in players, Izzo went to early lineup experimentations that left the roster bereft of shooters. It ground the offense to a halt and ended in a nearly 5-minute scoring drought.
The offense got going again as Tyson Walker decided to take over. His shooting, driving and dishing changed the complexion of the game. The good news is he is able to do that. The bad news is MSU seemed to need that against an opponent they should be outclassing on offense.
The second half looked a lot messier. Michigan State came out of the half and looked to run. They traded speed and aggression for precision. The offense stagnated as Izzo went to a few experimental line ups.
In the end the talent for Michigan State took over. For the first time in a game with decent competition MSU looked like the much better team.
Malik Hall had a quieter second half than first half, but that seemed mostly about limited minutes and different lineups. Jaden Akins is still trying to find his shot. Despite two early three pointers, Akins was only 1 for 6 on 2-pointers. AJ Hoggard is the player who had hte breakout game. His 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists was the type of performance expected this year. Yes, the 3 turnovers was higher than anyone wanted, but for right now the trade off to see him more aggressive is acceptable.
In the end, the offense found ways to score and separated themselves. The non-starters still have a lot to work on to improve offensive function, but the starters are carrying the team the way they should.
Offensive Grade A-
For as hot as the offense started the game, the defense was much shakier. Butler’s Pierre Brooks was dedicated early on to show what the Spartans were missing as he jacked up a poor opening three then connected on a sweet shot a few possessions later. Overall, Butler got good looks at the basket early on. The Michigan State offense was rolling but not creating any separation early because the defense was letting the Bulldogs get what they wanted.
The Spartans were helped by Butler’s cold shooting. When their offense ran out of steam, the lineups that looked janky on offense looked functional on defense. That’s good coaching and good understanding from everyone. Against an opponent actually hitting open shots it would not have been as pretty, but it worked in this game.
Holding a team to 25 points in the first half is a defensive accomplishment. Being a factor in them shooting just 26% from the floor is also a sign of defensive prowess.
The defense early in the second half was not as good. Butler started hitting shots and closing the gap. Michigan State let far too many Butler shooters catch the ball in space and have time to get it up. The Spartans are too experienced to let a lead go to their heads.
As soon as Butler went cold again the Spartan defense started looking better. The concern is it didn’t seem to be Michigan State’s defense making the difference. It seemed like Butler’s poor shooting.
In the end, Michigan State frustrated Butler and held them to a low shooting percentage and low point total. It would be hard to imagine the team really holding anyone to lower outputs. Still, the open looks for Butler are something that needs to be worked on.
Defense Grade B+
Transition played a much smaller role than expected in the first half. The Spartans looked like they wanted to run, but one of two things happened: 1- Butler got back very well; 2- Michigan State simply couldn’t finish all of the opportunities. This happens but is more concerning in context with the Duke game. MSU had plenty of opportunities in that game that were squandered by poor final execution. In the first half against Butler, the same trend appeared.
The Spartans came out in the second half focused on running. The first offensive possession was a great feed from AJ Hoggard to Malik Hall for a dunk in transition. That type of early pressure on defenses would be a huge asset down the road.
Down the stretch MSU pushed the ball but still with limited results. Players like Jaden Akins are part of the problem. Akins should be a nightmare for opposing teams in transition. Instead he struggled to finish in this game and it was exemplar of the entire team.
Transition Grade: C
Tom Izzo made a big move coming into this game: starting Carson Cooper at the 5. Mady Sissoko has been the starter for more than a year, but it’s been pretty clear this year that Cooper is the better option. This was the first real change to the projected veteran lineup this year, even if it was the most obvious. How he manages that with personalities will be key. It can help that Sissoko while beloved, has limitations that are obvious - to fans and most likely to teammates as well.
The move had to pay off, and in some ways it did, in others it just reminded fans that the center position is a concern for the team for the third year in a row. Cooper looked at times like he was trying to do too much. In a particularly bad set, Izzo tried a new lineup, first with Sissoko and then with Cooper that ended in chaos regardless of the center spot.
Putting Hoggard, Holloman, Carr, Booker and either of the centers all on the floor at the same time was rough. Hoggard ended up with a travel the first possession because there were no shooters to receive a pass. Another possession ended in a Booker travel as he tried to create an offensive moment. Another a Cooper turnover as he inexplicably got stuck with the ball at the top of the key and tried to be a guard. There is clearly a value in getting lineups like this to work long term, but it was not a pretty site early on.
It felt like Izzo decided the starters could blow the game wide open so it was time to experiment with lineups and wait to blow the game open. The result was more turnovers in a three minute stretch than the rest of the half combined.
Moving back to the starters, and particularly letting Tyson Walker cook in the late first half created separation.
Even as the second half started a bit sloppier for the Spartans, Izzo went with another experimental lineup. Around the 16 minute time out Izzo lined up all second string players, but this time with Tyson Walker. The lineup was Fears, Holloman, Walker, Booker and Sissoko. The lineup looked more functional with Walker there to space the floor. The problem early for the Spartans seems to be any lineup with both Booker and Carr on the floor together.
Izzo had his team focused and prepared in this game. He seemed in control throughout. His faith in his teams shooting, their veteran leaders, and their abilities shown through tonight as they righted the ship.
Izzo is still Izzo. The experimental lineups and weird lack of rhythm inherent in them is a hallmark of early season play under the hall of fame coach. This game was the perfect game for the coach. It was a decent challenge on the other side with plenty of opportunity to mix and max his players. All in all, this was an early season Izzo game in every way.
Coaching Grade A
This was a necessary game for the Spartans. Butler gave them a game but not a threat. MSU needed a game to try out more lineups, focus on improving themselves and take a breath.
Malik Hall and AJ Hoggard had the breakout games that should hopefully cement them being the veteran leaders everyone expected. Jaden Akins is still finding himself, but there was a lot of positives in this game.
The young players got plenty of time on the floor, even if it wasn’t a great game for many of them (Coen Carr Particularly struggled with four fouls, a turnover and essentially nothing else in 11 minutes).
The shooting is starting to come around. The assist rate is still lower than most Michigan State teams historically. The rebounding was improved as MSU outrebounded Butler by 10. That gap was helped by Carson Cooper’s 11 rebounds (4 offensive) that should cement him as the team’s starter.
It wasn’t a perfect game. The defense in particular left something to be desired, and the transition game never really got going. But overall, this was a solid win for a team needing some early stability.
Overall Grade B+