Michigan State hosted the Georgia Southern Eagles for a tune up game and got everything they wanted out of the game. While the Eagles never really challenged on the scoreboard (though it was 13-9 at almost 10 minutes into the first half), they gave an effort that pushed MSU consistently enough for the game to help them get better.
Michigan State got to play deep into its rotation, with 9 players scoring for the Spartans. No one played more than 25-minutes and nine players played more than 10-minutes.
This game had a lot of value for the Spartans.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Georgia Southern is simply not in the same league as the Spartans. This is a team that was 0 and 6 coming into the game and featured a group of transfers and a new coach still figuring it out. This means some of the grades are harder on the Spartans than the box score may seem to indicate.
Despite opening with a Tyson Walker three and a nice post up move by Mady Sissoko the Spartan offense once again got off to a slow start. Malik Hall couldn’t finish a hard drive and Jaden Akins missed shots. When the second group came in with Jeremy Fears, Cooper and Xavier Booker the missing continued with Walker and Booker both missing threes.
This is a team the Spartans are larger than, faster than, and more talented than top to bottom. Starting slowly against them is a bad sign. Worse, the offense once again created open shots and opportunities that were not converted. This has been the story too often with this team this year.
Hoggard coming onto the floor for the first time around the 13-minute mark didn’t immediately pay dividends. The team was in a slump for much of the first ten minutes of the first half. After a timeout at the 10 minute mark the Spartans came alive for a few minutes. While Hoggard had a turnover (or two - depending on how you count the blocked shot) during that stretch, the offense found its first semblance of rhythm during the next 2 and a half minutes.
The real offensive momentum got going with a transition dunk by Carson Cooper on a feed from Tyson Walker. Even a failed follow up alley oop to Cooper showed the entire team waking up and getting aggressive. Jaden Akins had a great backdoor alley oop and finally Walker shook off a terrible shooting start (1 for 6) by doing what all shooters should do more: driving hard to the basket. A great snake dribble and layup, got him back going and he then hit back to back jumpers.
This stretch blew open the game putting the Spartans up 20 with three minutes left in the first half. The half ended on a 25-2 run that saw Michigan State rely on its size and athleticism. The only complaint during that period was how little of it was driven by the three point line.
The second half offense saw continued struggles from three. The positives were Tyson Walker stayed aggressive and drove the lane and Akins found some success from the mid range.
As the game went into full on blow out mode, the lineups changed and so too did the priorities. The grade here doesn’t really take into account that. What it does take into account is the problem largely hidden by the overall physical dominance of Michigan State: shooting. Michigan State struggled again from three point, missing countless wide open looks. The shooting struggles also continued at the free throw line. In a game where MSU blew out their opponent, they still should have scored more.
Offensive Grade: B
In a game where the Spartans were expected to absolutely dominate, letting the much smaller Georgia Southern slice to the basket for two open layups in the first few minutes is embarrassing. Coach Izzo went with Mady Sissoko in the starting lineup and the Eagles saw almost no rim protection early.
The second group that featured Booker, Fears and Cooper played a bit better on the outside at defense. The driving lanes clogged up and a few turnovers were generated. The lowlight of this group was Xavier Booker getting back late on defense (after getting his layup swatted away with authority) and being dunked over by a guard. A truly terrible look for the 6’11” forward.
The defense tightened the screws and held Georgia Southern for 8 minutes without a basket. Some of that was the Eagles not hitting shots, a lot more of it was the pressure on the perimeter. The driving lanes were not there and the outside shots were contested.
Then the blocks came. MSU was credited with four blocks in the first half, but it looked like a lot more. Jaden Akins had at least two plays that could have been blocks, maybe three (he was credited with one). Fears was a bit late on some close outs but was still impacting shots. Malik Hall was outmuscling people for rebounds.
Georgia Southern was deep into its bench by the end of the first half due to extensive foul trouble, but still the Spartan defense just locked up every player on their roster.
Despite the monster halftime lead, the game starters for the Spartans returned to the floor to start the second half and forced a shot clock violation.
The focus slipped after that as the Eagles scoring on multiple possessions triggered a timeout (and some shouting) by Tom Izzo. Similar to the early first half, the Spartans were vulnerable to Georgia Southern’s drives. When the guards aren’t stopping penetration, MSU’s bigs are not able to close them off (as Hauser did well last year), or protect the rim.
The second half changes the grade for the Spartans defense. The first half was a clear A, the second half was a C. Georgia Southern shot almost 60% in the second half. At times the Eagles owned the paint by cutting to the rim. The final grade is an average of those too, but it should be a concern the C earned in the second half.
Defensive Grade: B
The first transition opportunity did not go well. Tre Holloman tried to find a sprinting Mady Sissoko under the basket. The pass was late and when it was thrown it caught Sissoko off guard and as he bobbled the pass he traveled. The play went down as a Sissoko turnover but was really Holloman’s fault.
Inserting Jeremy Fears in at the point guard changed the pace of the fast break. MSU still didn’t finish all of them, but Fears is a much more natural transition leader than Holloman.
The transition game continued its impotence for most of the first half. With about 7 minutes left, MSU had forced 7 turnovers and had zero points to show for it. The highlight that covered some of that frustrating lack of scoring was a wide open alley oop from Walker to Cooper for a monster dunk.
Late in the first half there was a sequence that showed the potential this squad has in transition - particularly with an aggressive AJ Hoggard. On the first, Malik Hall grabbed a big rebound, came back down to earth, turned and saw Hoggard running the outside lane and lofted it the length of the court for him. The result was a great layup. On the very next possession, Hoggard got a less good feed from Jeremy Fears and was fouled. Even with the poor feed by Fears, those plays back to back showed why MSU really wants (and needs) Hoggard on the court this year - if Hoggard is playing like that.
The opening of the second half showed some improvement from Holloman in transition. In an otherwise strong first half his lack of push in transition was the one hole in his game. His answer to start the second half was to push the ball very deep to a sprinting Tyson Walker in transition for a shot that counted after a goal tending call.
Transition offense took over for the Spartans for much of the second half. As fatigue and fouls took their toll on Georgia Southern MSU kept pushing the pace. MSU went from almost no points off turnovers for the bulk of the first half to scoring constantly off forced turnovers.
The Spartans were slow to get the transition game going in the first half. In the second half they found some dominance by scoring in transition, but it didn’t fully counter the 8 turnovers the Eagles forced in the second half - many of which the Eagles turned into points.
The transition game formally dominated the fast break points, but it didn’t feel quite as aggressive as it could have been.
Transition Grade: A-
This game started with a strong display of coaching. Reminder: Strong doesn’t always mean good. AJ Hoggard started the game on the bench. The senior point guard didn’t touch the court till after the 13-minute mark in the first half in the third batch of subs. The move was framed as “holding his players accountable” by the announcers. Hoggard needs something and this was a clear message.
More interesting than just Hoggard being benched was who formally replaced him. Tre Holloman started and played the point guard. Holloman had started in the game Tyson Walker missed and played the shooting guard. And in most games this season he played shooting guard with Jeremy Fears or AJ Hoggard at the point. Even sometimes with Tyson Walker at the point. Coming off a game where Walker showed incredible productivity at the point against Arizona, this was an intriguing move.
Even after Hoggard entered the lineup, Holloman still ran the point for certain sets.
The other move was inserting Sissoko back in the starting lineup. It seemed to spark Sissoko a bit and recognize his improved play - particularly against Arizona where his screening helped Tyson Walker spring free multiple times.
Against a much smaller team, both Cooper and Sissoko looked good through most of the first half. Unless Jaxon Kohler comes back and changes this dynamic, Izzo may be riding the hot hand at the center for the rest of the season.
Izzo used the first half to test out lineups, and to their credit it didn’t disrupt the scoring or defense once they got going. Despite rotating in a wide range of players, the offense finally looked cohesive and the defense was lights out. That’s good coaching in practice that leads to that outcome.
In the second half, Izzo shouted, took timeouts, and managed a high level competition like rotation for the early going. It helped keep MSU focused and sparked a 20-2 run (after a slow start).
Izzo inserted Booker about halfway through the second half and tried a new approach with the highly touted freshman. For the first time this year, Booker played the five largely with Coen Carr at the four. The results were not always pretty. The duo gave up back to back layups by the Eagles. It still showed creativity in trying to find the right formula to unlock Booker’s talent.
After Booker clearly struggled (three turnovers at least), Izzo rolled out a lineup with Hall at the five. That lineup has become the closing lineup in many games this season and it showed a commitment to find depth behind Cooper and Sissoko.
Izzo coached from before this game all the way to the final whistle. This game saw no one play more than 25-minutes. That commitment to playing his full roster gave valuable time to young players like Xavier Booker and gave guys like Tre Holloman a chance to shine.
Coaching Grade: A
In some ways this was a team win. In others, it was a win based on physical dominance that covered up some serious concerns. The shooting for the Spartans was simply not good from the three point line nor the foul line. Xavier Booker did not look good at all.
On the positives, AJ Hoggard responded to the benching with what may be his best game and most consistent effort of the season. Jaden Akins found ways to contribute totaling 14 points and 6 rebounds. Malik Hall was one rebound shy of a double double and Sissoko had 10 points in only 16 minutes. Tre Holloman had a fantastic game tallying 7 points and 10 assists in just 21 minutes.
And for stretches the defense was locked in and shut down the Eagles. Still, they only barely “won” the second half, and this grade has to have a bit of a curve on it based on the competition.
Overall Grade: B+