Last night I got to utilize the perks of my job writing for TOC to get a media credential in order to attend the MSU vs. Butler game. With the win, I remain perfect in basketball games I have attended as a part of the media. For the record, I am winless in football. Maybe that will end next week at Ford Field. Also, I was supposed to go to Chicago this past Tuesday for the Duke game but something came up and I was unable to travel for that one. MSU probably would have won if I was there.
So there I was taking in the game from Press Row just above the Izzone next to my cowriter Andy. At the end of the game, we discussed what angle we each were going to take in our articles. I asked him if he had a particular format he enjoys doing for his post-game (his Key Moments), and that reminded me that I had a piece that I was doing for basketball games a season ago. For the first time this season, I give you “3 Things I Liked & 3 Things I Did Not Like”.
3 Things I liked:
1. The logical place to start this list is with the aspect of MSU’s game that had drawn the most groans early this season. The Spartans went 1-20 from 3 in the opening loss to James Madison and 1-11 in the bounce-back win over Southern Indiana. The ship began to right itself in game three, a loss to Duke (I know I did not write an article on that game and that is because my only take on that game was that the refereeing was the one and only determinant of the outcome) when MSU went 6-19 from deep. One game does not erase all the memories from fans’ minds, however. But two games in a row will offer more comfort for us watching from the comforts of our couches or from the stands. On Friday night, MSU had another good night from behind the arc, finishing 7-20 (35%). Impressively, those seven makes came from six different Spartans. Jaden Akins made his first two attempts, including one on MSU’s second possession, both within the first five minutes of action, though he would miss his remaining four attempts on the night. AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker each splashed in one triple, as did reserves Tre Holloman, Jeremy Fears, and Xavier Booker. The 20 attempts represent roughly a third of MSU’s 59 total FGAs, so we did not see an overreliance on three-point shooting. Rather, we used the threat of the shot to help pull the defense out away from the basket to open up some interior offense. Of course, this strategy does not work if you are not a threat to make your deep shots, so it is good to see the long ball start to go in for the Green & White.
2. Let’s just get right to the second item that has drawn an abundance of ire from the TOC comments section early in this season, and that has been the play of AJ Hoggard. AJ had not scored in double-digits yet, with point totals of 9, 4, and 2. Perhaps more alarmingly has been his shooting percentages of 18, 29, and 13% in those three games.
To be sure, Hoggard did not come out of the gates against Butler looking like he had broken out of his early-season slump. In fact, he may have looked even worse. He was called for a pair of traveling calls in the first six minutes. He also picked up a foul, had a third turnover, and missed his first three FGA including one layup before he got his first point, a 1-2 trip to the free throw line with 3:10 remaining in the first half. From there, he would add his first basket and then a pair of FTs to get to five points at the intermission.
In the second half, AJ looked to be more aggressive. After Butler missed the opening shot of the second half, he got the rebound, pushed the ball up court, and dropped a bounce pass to Malik Hall who was cutting down the lane for an easy dunk. He would look for more of his own points, too, and added four FGs for nine points in the 2nd to finish with 14 points. Three of those makes were layups while the other was the aforementioned triple. An aggressive AJ Hoggard, one who is regularly attempting to dribble to the hole, is the best version of him, and is arguably the biggest factor in how far this team goes in 2023-24. If he is passive and not pushing the action, this team is very beatable. When he is controlling the flow and bulldozing his way wherever he wants, the whole team benefits.
3. I will title this last one “I like being correct.” I am going to bring you all back to the article I posted 24 hours after MSU was eliminated in last year’s tournament:
In this article I predicted who would be in the starting lineup this year, and I said Carson Cooper would win the starting center job. Sure, it did not come to fruition until the fourth game, but I will chalk that to Izzo’s resistance to just giving playing time to underclassmen. Indeed, Carson had looked like the better player through three games. Sissoko may have had the edge in total points, but that is due to his 11-point outburst against Southern Indiana. Aside from that, Cooper has been a better rebounder, more consistent interior defender (at least one blocked shot in every game), and has been more turnover- and foul-averse (they have each fouled out once).
In the game last night, Cooper took the starting job and looked impressive in doing so. As he recognized in post-game questioning, his defense is the strongest part of his game, and he is still working on his scoring. He seems to rise up higher and secure rebounds better than Mady does. I do not recall any instances last night where he lost a rebound opportunity, and he finished the game with 11 boards, four on the offensive glass. He had two rejections last night along with one steal. Sure, he only scored three points, but he is not being looked to be a scoring weapon. That said, I think he will benefit from playing more with the starters and that will lead to more scoring opportunities as the season goes on.
In the post-game press conference, I asked Coach Izzo if we could assume that Cooper will hold onto the starting job moving forward. Izzo said he did not want to have a “QB controversy” but would only say that he imagines that Cooper and Sissoko will each play in the 15-22 minute range. Also noteworthy from the press conference, Izzo said that Carson came up to him after the game and thanked him for the opportunity to start, and that he was very impressed by that. Speaking to Carson in the locker room after, it is clear that this young man is very modest and is going to continue to work hard for opportunities to play.
On the flip side of this personnel change is Mady Sissoko. In theory, this could benefit him as well, if he ends up playing the majority of his minutes against the opponent’s bench players. Maybe he will be able to score and rebound more effectively if he is going up against backups. It is worth giving him recognition for his best thirty-second span of last night’s game. On defense, he got a steal down low, including scrambling to the floor to secure the loose ball and get it to his teammate. And then on the ensuing offensive possession, he rebounded an Akins miss and put it back for his lone basket. Yes, Mady can do good things in small amounts, but he should be able to do more of those against lesser competition.
3 Things I Did Not Like:
1. Since I had my correct prediction of Cooper starting as one of my likes, I will also give an incorrect prediction of mine for my first dislike. In that same article, I said Xavier Booker would be the starting power forward. While I did later say it could take him until New Years to earn that spot, I was certain that he would eventually make it his. Four games into this season, I am ready to concede that he will not make this prediction come true. He is clearly the freshman who is least ready to contribute to Izzo’s game plans (not including Gehrig Normand). Last night, Booker played two minutes in the first half and another two early in the second before going back in for the final two minutes. That is when he sunk his three-point shot.
I am wondering if Booker is in the doghouse right now and not showing out at practices. Read into this what you want, but during the press conference after the game, Izzo forgot Booker’s name while giving an answer, and started tapping on the podium for several seconds trying to remember it. That can’t be a good omen.
2. Michigan State continues to not get to the foul line. In this game, they only had fifteen attempts from the stripe compared to 24 for Butler. You are not going to tell me that Butler out hustled MSU last night and got whistles that way. You can’t tell me they were more aggressive in going to the basket. So either the Spartans are being incredibly elusive in their movement and are avoiding all contact or the referees are continuing to not give us the whistles they are giving other teams. Either way, it would be nice to see us getting more free throws.
3. I will not nitpick too much after a twenty-point win in a must-win game, so here is a fun one. I did not like Steven Izzo holding the ball for twenty seconds at the end to run out the clock. I predicted in our preseason predictions piece that he would score eight points this year. This did not help. I asked Tom after the game if Steven not trying to score there was a call from the sideline or Steven’s own decision. Tom said Steven knew to do that on his own and that he would have known his dad would have been upset had he tried to do something with such a large lead. That said, Tom did say that he yelled at Steven in the locker room anyway because he did not like how he just stood there holding it behind his back. Maybe Tom wanted him to dribble it out instead. Always coaching is Tom.
We will see tomorrow if MSU’s improved three-point shooting can become a trend and if they can figure out how to get more FT attempts and more FG attempts for Lil’ Izzo when they host Alcorn State.
GO GREEN! GO WHITE!