Michigan State took on the Butler Bulldogs in the last Gavitt Games. The Bulldogs struggled to keep up with the Spartans, as Michigan State found some stability in a season that had looked too shaky early on.
Here is my three point shot on the key points in the game.
POINT 1: The Veterans are Looking Like Veterans and the Freshmen Like Freshman
The slow start for Jaden Akins, Malik Hall and AJ Hoggard created a lot of panic this year. In a year with a strong freshman class, veterans struggling meant everyone immediately wanted to see the freshmen play more. Fanning those flames was the early quality play of Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears.
In this game, the freshmen looked like freshmen. Coen Carr has come back down to earth since his early fantastic play. His defensive lapses are starting to be exploited. His offensive cuts to the basket are being cut off early. It’s clear the scouting report has specific recommendations to frustrated Carr. His evolution needs to be A- to be in the right place on defense and B- have enough variety in his game that he can confound the scouting report.
Jeremy Fears looked more functional but struggled to spark the offense in a meaningful way.
Luckily as the freshmen are hitting a (hopefully temporary) ceiling the veterans are coming back around.
Malik Hall had another fantastic game. 8 rebounds in not extensive minutes in the first half was a dominant performance on the glass. Adding to that, Hall showed a range of offensive abilities this team will need. The first three minutes of the game were the Malik Hall show. And throughout the game Hall started looking like the reliable option to run offense through and engage in any offensive set.
AJ Hoggard actually drove the ball - repeatedly. His outside shot may still be missing in action, but the aggression and distribution is staring to show up.
Jaden Akins also is finding his footing. The first few games may have been Akins trying to do too much. For now, when Akins focuses on his role from last year - specifically spot up three point shooting and crashing the glass for put backs - he is starting to show value. It remains to be seen if he can build off of that into a more multifaceted offensive threat he clearly wants to be.
The starters are coming into form. The freshmen need to start building their long term form soon. It will take both groups for this team to get where it wants to go (cough, national championship).
POINT 2: Carson Cooper delivered in a role that had become an obvious need - it doesn’t solve the center position limitations
Tom Izzo made the first big coaching move of the season in this game. Carson Cooper took over the starting role at the five. Cooper had clearly looked like the better option in the early going, and while not starting was playing more minutes than Senior Mady Sissoko.
The formal move to elevate Cooper was clearly earned. The challenge for Izzo and the team is to make sure everyone is fine with Sissoko being replaced.
It will help that the move seemed obvious. It also helps that Sissoko has been supported for so long by the Spartan coaching staff and team. Sissoko is a mature person, who has demonstrated he sees the world as more than just basketball (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google his philanthropy work).
Sissoko has a big role to play this season. Cooper simply looks like the better option as a starter.
Cooper delivered 11 rebounds - 4 of them offensive - in just 23 minutes. He kept his fouling relatively low, and kept the team moving on offense. Unlike the Duke game where Sissoko was responsible for turnovers or lost possessions at multiple times, Cooper’s presence seemed to help keep the offense moving, even if he did not contribute any post up moves.
That limitation may still haunt the Spartans. The hope is with Cooper formally taking over the starting spot, he can find the confidence and opportunity to contribute more on offense.
POINT 3: Xavier Booker’s playing time is going to start being a problem
Michigan State had the number four ranked freshman class coming in this year. The combination of that talent with the returning veterans was expected to be potent.
Early on Jeremy Fears and Coen Carr are two freshmen clearly in the rotation. Gehrig Norman is going to redshirt in a crowded back court. That’s a shooter they won’t have, but he is also under sized so not a huge loss.
The more surprising is the limited time Xavier Booker is getting. Booker was the highest rated member of the freshman class and has the height and length to get any basketball fan excited. Instead, Booker is struggling to get any time, let alone crack the core rotation.
Booker looks lost in almost every game this year. He looks slow to rotate on defense, hesitant on offense, and generally like a much less heralded recruit. It’s way too early to write off the talent Booker has, yet it’s notable that he is not playing much.
Even if he did hit a sweet open three, it was in garbage time. Booker clearly has skills, they may just not be ready.
You have to trust that what we are seeing on the court is magnified in practice. Contrary to a popular Twitter (aka X) narrative, Izzo has a track record of developing and playing freshman. See Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears this year.
Booker may simply not be ready and stuck behind a re-emerging Malik Hall and a newly emergent Coen Carr. It won’t get easier for Booker to break into the rotation after Jaxon Kohler returns.