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BBD’s 3pt Shot: Spartans Lose to Arizona as Walker’s Great Play Raises a Conundrum, Sissoko Screens, and the end of “encouraging”

Tyson Walker is a superstar and may be the best option at point guard. That, plus Sissoko’s great game raised some serious questions.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Duke at Michigan State David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State lost to an exceptionally talented (and large) Arizona team 74-68. The game saw the Spartans struggle early, close the gap by playing fantastic defense, then fail to rebound effectively in the final three minutes and let Arizona pull away.

There was a lot to unpack in this game. Here is my three point shot (and 1) after the game.

POINT 1: Walker is a star and his impact as the point guard presents a dilemma

Tyson Walker saved Michigan State in this game. He took control in the first half and laid the foundation for the come back. Walker’s offense, and impact on the offense of other players, put Michigan State on the path that eventually saw them take the lead in the final five minutes of the game.

Walker did this by being aggressive, hitting shots and playing the point guard. Last year that was not a big deal. Despite Tre Holloman technically being the backup point guard, it was always clear if the team needed a true point guard in the absence of AJ Hoggard it was going to be Walker.

This year, the plan saw Walker as an emergency fourth or even fifth option. The idea was he would be a pure scorer in the shooting guard roll. AJ Hoggard’s early struggles and the general lack of shooters to space the floor has made that plan hard to stick to. This game, that plan was utterly abandoned.

Instead of going to Fears or Holloman when AJ Hoggard got into early foul trouble, the ball landed in Walker’s experienced hands. It opened up the scoring for Walker and others.

Walker was able to create his own shot through Cassius Winston-esque pick and rolls. His ability to control the flow of the offense created openings for Coen Carr. Even Jeremy Fears benefitted as Walker found him on the block and a slip pass ended in an easy layup.

At the end of the game, the offense stagnated after AJ Hoggard tried to win it all himself and never got the ball into Walker’s hands. It was painfully obvious that Walker ran the offense better.

Hoggard is struggling enough that it is fast approaching a requirement to consider alternatives. If Walker is better at running the offense, and Fears and Holloman are better shooters, what role does that leave for Hoggard?

The hope is Hoggard stops struggling and plays within himself again. The team was at its best last year when Hoggard was driving and dishing and Walker scoring when called upon.

Still, if Hoggard doesn’t find his end of last year form, or Walker can be a 20+ point scorer at the point guard and engage others, does the team simply look better betting everything on Walker?

This is the tough question MSU will have to answer in the coming weeks. The hope is Hoggard helps make this a non issue by playing better.

POINT 2: Sissoko picked a heck of a time to play his best game of the season

Two of Sissoko’s best games of the season have come since he moved to the bench. This game was the type of performance that shows just how tantalizing his physical gifts are when his motor is going at full speed. The problem has always been Sissoko’s lack of natural instinct on the court.

This year it seemed like Sissoko tried to slow the game down to be more careful on offense. It killed what made him special - a ball of energy willing to outwork anyone.

The move back to the bench seems to have brought back the anything at all costs attitude for Sissoko. It may be more freeing (and more importantly the right role) for Sissoko to come into the games as a whirling dervish, committed to getting after everything even if it means fouling.

It worked for stretches in this game and helped keep Michigan State in this game. Even more impressive was who Sissoko was doing this against. Arizona is physically one of the largest teams in the country. Sissoko’s experience going up against other talented bigs showed up in this game. It was a stark contrast to Carson Cooper’s clear struggles.

Copper may be the better option many nights to start, but the team still needs, and benefits from, Sissoko.

The area that may keep Sissoko on the court is his screening. Tyson Walker’s fantastic game was made possible in part because of the work done by Sissoko. When Sissoko was on the court, Walker was able to pop free on screens. When he wasn’t - particularly late - Walker struggled to peep defenders off of him.

Sissoko has clear limitations. It’s important to see the benefits he brings the whole team.

POINT 3: This needs to be the last “it’s encouraging” game

Losing in November is not season ending in college basketball. It’s a long season, with plenty of opportunities to show you belong in the upper echelon of schools. MSU has a long, and proud, history of playing its best basketball when it matters: March.

That said, this is the second loss that the most obvious comment coming out of it was, “well, it looked encouraging.” The loss to Duke did look encouraging, as MSU finally found a way to hit a couple threes in the second half. They still lost because they were unable to put that shooting to good use with lock down defense.

This game saw the Spartans play fantastic defense against a highly skilled opponent. It saw actual offense from AJ Hoggard and Jaden Akins. It showed the team may have a go to offensive identity if they need it, namely playing Tyson Walker at the point. It even saw important steps by the two freshman that played, Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears.

Those are all great, and encouraging, things to see in this game. The problem is it was still a loss. December is around the corner, and March grows closer every day.

The December slate of games features Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Baylor. None of those teams should be nearly as good as Arizona. Michigan State needs to move from “encouraging” to “they took care of business.”

Let’s see these November games as great development opportunities and turn the page to winning time as quickly as possible.

And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): Refs - just an interesting game

I sometimes use this last “and-1” to harp on the refs. I am not going to do that as much here. What I am going to point out is the way the refs changed this game.

In the first ten minutes of the game Arizona was allowed to hand check on every single defensive stand. MSU’s guards couldn’t get any space to dribble because Wildcat defenders were in their chest constantly.

That is great defense. It was also a lot of fouls going uncalled. That ten minutes was where Arizona built the lead that eventually won the game.

Fouls are called by the refs but that doesn’t mean teams can’t impact how they are called. Once Malik Hall and Tyson Walker started lowering their shoulder and driving against the Arizona defense they were rewarded with fouls being called on the Wildcats. It was no coincidence that once the refs started actually calling fouls on the Wildcats that the game evened up.

The refs approach to the physical defense shaped this game. Their eventual decision to call fouls sent a lot of people to the free throw line and limited each team’s key players. This is a reminder that the way refs call a neutral court game (e.g. like an NCAA Tournament game) can be very different from a standard game, or change drastically during the game.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what your takeaway from the game in the comments.