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Michigan State Comes Up Short against Arizona: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

The Spartans held Arizona to its worst shooting night of the season and largely neutralized their bigs. It still wasn’t enough.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State came up short in their comeback attempt against Arizona. After falling behind double digits midway through the first half, they took the lead in the final five minutes before losing 74-68.

It’s November so the game can still be called encouraging (losses stop being called that in December). The grades below go through the good and the bad from the Spartans in this March-like November match up.

Details of the Curve for this Game: Arizona has the makings of a very special team. They were shooting over 50% coming into the matchup against MSU. On top of that, they are physically one of the tallest teams in the country. Four players on the roster are over 7-feet tall, with two of them playing a lot of minutes. The size, scoring punch and defense were all going to be tall challenges for Michigan State.

Offense:

First offensive set is what MSU really really wants to happen a LOT this year. AJ Hoggard took a weaving drive into the paint, drew the defender from the corner, kicks out to a wide open Malik Hall who hit the three. Even though the shot was later ruled a two, it was the type of play the veteran players are expected to be making consistently.

MSU looked like they could keep pace in the first few minutes then went cold. Back to back AJ Hoggard turnovers started the poor offensive sets. Shifting in the second line players left MSU looking lost. A fantastic Jeremy Fears drive over one of Arizona’s seven footers was the only bright point from about 17:30 to the twelve minute time out.

This was in part because MSU was struggling but a lot of it was due to the truly intense defense by Arizona. The Wildcats used their length and size to frustrate even the simplest offensive move while getting deep into the chest of every single Spartan. MSU has enough ball handlers that they should be able to avoid this, yet it completely flummoxed them.

It didn’t help that Arizona was able to hand check the ball handler consistently without a single foul called. While mentioning things the Spartans can’t control the floor covering at center court and in the paint looked like it was making both teams slip.

It should be noted that as Michigan State’s veterans started actually putting their shoulder down and driving at Arizona defenders the refs did start calling fouls on Wildcat players.

The offense Michigan State finally found in the first half came from a familiar place: Tyson Walker. Walker put the team on his back. He opened driving lines, he found wide open shots and he even ran the point briefly and fed Fears on the post for a great layup. Malik Hall added valuable aggressive play that drew multiple Arizona fouls, but it was Walker pouring in the points.

Walker moved to the point with primarily Holloman and Fears on the court. That combination on offense, mostly with Carr actually opened up the floor. Mostly because it put the ball in Walker’s hand and the offense played off of him.

In the second half Izzo went back to Walker at the point - even with Hoggard on the floor. The results were immediate, including the first connected alley oop in a while. The team looks better and moves better with the ball in Walker’s hands.

The emergence of Jaden Akins in the second half was the second scorer Tyson Walker needed. Akins’ 10 point burst in the first 10 minutes of the second half changed the flow of the game. He spread the defense and used his athleticism to make some of the plays. He still looks like there is another gear - and a more consistent shot - but the improvement is there and welcome.

A third scorer emerged for a brief moment late in the second half: AJ Hoggard. He emerged, scored, led the team to the lead then essentially lost the game for the Spartans. Hoggard’s 15 points were a clear asset to the team. As Walker slowed down his scoring, and looked like he might be spent, Hoggard started doing the things we saw late last year. His drives were powerful, the ball was moving up the court faster on every possession (a stark difference between Hoggard and Walker their entire careers) and he was putting points on the board.

The problem was no one else was helping. Hoggard’s style is so different from Walker’s it seemed to catch the rest of the offense off guard. Carson Cooper had a few balls fly at him that he clearly didn’t know what to do with. Beyond that, Hoggard simply wasn’t passing. He was trying to prove he could take over by forcing in scores, rather than running an offense.

This culminated in Hoggard taking essentially every shot down the stretch and just not making them. It was shocking to see the game in his hands and not Walker’s.

Looking at the entire performance, MSU’s offense was simply too reliant on Walker. As a team they shot 29% from three and only 40% from the floor. That’s not a great performance.

Offense Grade: B

Defense:

Early on Michigan State seemed to be impacting Arizona’s shooting. There was a lot of missed shots by a team that has been red hot. That is a credit to MSU’s defense. They showed fight on the glass, and even forced an early jump ball.

The defensive rebounding was a struggle for the early going. Arizona’s size clearly gave MSU a problem. Even with Sissoko playing notably hard and diving for loose balls, when they were on defense Arizona just looked like they were reaching up and plucking the ball out of the air before anyone could even jump.

The Spartans defense was decent and aggressive. The early going it was compromised by the Wildcats defense looking even more impressive and a few 50-50 balls going Arizona’s way. Still forcing Arizona to take a timeout on the inbound play coming out of the 12-minute timeout was impressive.

The Spartan defense started to crumble right as their offense found a rhythm (it was called “let Walker cook”). The main culprit was Coen Carr. Carr was clearly on the court because his athletic ability allows him to play above his size and fight for rebounds. Something Jaden Akins was struggling with mightily. The trade off is Carr got caught out of position on multiple plays that led to Wildcat scores.

Maddeningly, even when the Spartans were able to hold tough, Arizona’s shooting took over. At least three possessions with fantastic Spartan defense ended in Steph Curry range three pointers falling for the Wildcats.

In the second half MSU started playing much more consistent defense. Despite giving up a few more fouls than they would have liked, the Michigan State defense slowed Arizona and gave their offense time to close the gap.

The shooting touch for Arizona finally cooled off as MSU held the Wildcats without a field goal for more than 9 minutes. The defense was a team wide effort that pushed Arizona to rush its shots.

The problem down the stretch was rebounds. MSU went to its small line up to close the game and it clearly impacted their ability to rebound, and Arizona exploited it.

Arizona closed the game on a run that went back to overpowering Michigan State. Even without their seven footers, Arizona was able to beat MSU to the loose balls and put back misses to pull away for the win.

MSU played fantastic defense against a team full of scoring threats. It wasn’t enough in the end which lowers this grade, but anyone that holds Arizona to more than 9 minutes without a field goal this year deserves praise.

Defense Grade: A-

Transition:

If you live by the transition game you can also die by it. After MSU dug in on defense and corralled a few rebounds, MSU started pushing the ball. It sparked a few good looks, but once again the Spartans failed to convert on enough of them - a missed three pointer by Jaden Akins on a great feed by Malik Hall was particularly painful. Arizona also showed they had teeth in the transition game forcing a few turnovers by AJ Hoggard that made him look like a guy not focused enough.

On one particularly painful (literally) play, Tre Holloman used fast hands to grab a steal and drove the length of the court for a layup. Unfortunately he got bodied by a recovering Wildcat defender who knocked him to the ground and sent him to the bench injured for a few minutes. Oh, and there was no call on the block by the refs. A trend that the refs seemed committed to in the early going (though they did finally start calling Arizona - that coincidentally allowed MSU to find some offense).

The transition game gave way to more half court offense in the later part of the first half. It returned midway through the second half as AJ Hoggard was finally able to play some serious minutes at the point. Hoggard’s foul trouble left Walker running the point for much of the first 10 minutes of the second half. Spelling Walker, Hoggard started getting his game going. He drove a few times and looked to push the ball on every possession.

When Walker took a late game breather, Hoggard kept MSU in it by creating and converting transition baskets. It was an impressive display that culminated in MSU taking the lead. Unfortunately, it was the last bright spot for MSU.

MSU did win the scoring battle in transition, racking up 13 points to Arizona’s 12. It needed to be more. Early on they squandered a few of those opportunities, something that is too common this season.

The one downside to going to Walker at the point is the lack of push early in possessions. Walker has long been a walk it up the court type of point guard. He costs you some transition pressure but gives you his prowess in the half court. A trade Izzo was happy to make tonight, even if it left the transition play relatively poor.

Transition Grade: B-

Coaching:

Coach Izzo was clearly dedicated to using his roster. By six minutes into the game ten Spartans had touched the floor. Some of that looked like he was trying to find something - specifically letting Jeremy Fears take a bit of a longer run after Hoggard had two early turnovers. The rest simply was Izzo using the depth he has at his disposal.

The problem with using that depth was MSU looked discombobulated too many times on offense. Players drove into odd spots on the court and there was minimal flow. A lot of that was the intense defense the Wildcats were playing. At least some of it was the lineups on the floor did not look like groups that have played a lot together - even in practice.

Hoggard and Cooper both ended up with two fouls early on. Hoggard was struggling anyway, and it was mostly expected that Sissoko and Cooper would be struggling with fouls in this game. The player that put Izzo in a bind was Jaden Akins. He was clearly overwhelmed by the defense Arizona was throwing at him. To counter, Izzo put in Coen Carr and hoped his athleticism would keep him competitive against the larger opponents. The problem was Carr got exposed on defense.

Izzo clearly sees the long term necessity for Carra as he kept him on the court for most of the final ten minutes of the first half even though his defense cost the team on multiple occasions. Carr rewarded that faith by contributing some great rebounds and needed offense. That is why Izzo is a hall of famer and I am some guy writing articles.

The decision to move Walker to the point was bold. It was semi forced because Hoggard was in foul trouble (and banged up) but it was the call coming out of half with AJ on the floor.

Walker looked like vintage Cassius Winston in the end of his junior year and throughout his senior year. Izzo knows the possibilities that come with that approach on offense. He was clearly willing to ride it for the first time this season.

Izzo went to his small ball lineup to close the game. He’d sat Walker for a few minutes and watched AJ Hoggard lead a transition heavy 11-1 scoring explosion and push MSU into the lead. Then he removed Sissoko in favor of more offense on the court. It bit him. The half court offense - even with Walker at the point - stagnated immediately. On the defensive end, even with Arizona’s two main 7-footers on the bench, the Spartans gave up key rebounds that turned into Wildcat points.

Izzo inserted Sissoko back in the game, but they’d lost the lead and were down three points with 1:51 left in the game. Sissoko had a rough deflection out of bounds and Izzo pulled him in favor of Coen Carr. That started a rotation of players that frankly looked bizarre.

Izzo went with Sissoko on some plays and then ball handlers on others. The shuffling in and out made it clear Izzo was not comfortable with what he wanted on the court. It hurt the Spartans as they couldnt dig into one coherent approach, and on offense it left the game in the hands of an AJ Hoggard who clearly had decided he was going to single handedly win it. Something that clearly did not work.

Izzo was willing to pivot to Walker at the point and had a great defensive approach. The balance was his late game adjustments and rotations that left the Spartans vulnerable at some key points. It’s a November game so Izzo may be fine with the strange lineups in the first half costing them the game. The grades are not.

Coaching Grade: C+

Overall:

This was a game that traded dominant 9+ minute stretches. In the first half Arizona built a big lead with a nearly 9 minute stretch of play that held MSU without a field goal and featured multiple ridiculous shots fall. In the second half, the Spartans did the same thing back to Arizona.

These stretches were not poor play by either team, they were great plays by the dominating team at that moment. Michigan State played mostly stellar defense against a much larger and red hot shooting opponent.

The Spartans won the transition comparison and only lost the rebounding battle by 2 - unfortunately those were key rebounds in the final moments that cost them the game. Still the defensive job they did on an Arizona team that was pumping out three pointers in every game this season was notable.

On offense, the team still struggled with their shooting, even as Jaden Akins and AJ Hoggard had bursts of points for the first time this season.

This performance showed you there is a few more gears left for this team to obtain, and they have some guys who can take them a long way in March. It also showed they are still figuring it out in terms of lineups and who needs to be in charge when the game is on the line.

That confusion cost them the game. And it hurts them in these grades.

Overall Grade: B

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?