Michigan State opened the 2023-2024 season with a challenging opponent that was still supposed to be a tune up. Instead, James Madison came into East Lansing and controlled the game against the Spartans. MSU looked like they had finally regained control behind a truly heroic effort by Tyson Walker but as he tired, the engine that kept this sluggish team moving disappeared.
This is the first home loss in November in the Tom Izzo era. That’s one of those useless vanity stats but it still feels necessary to point out. Worse, this loss is not to a top ranked team. It is to a team that is seemingly better than most were ready to give them credit, but still not the type of program that is supposed to give MSU problems this year.
There is a lot to be frustrated at in this game - particularly as so much of it echoed what was seen in the exhibition loss to Tennessee. Let’s break it all down.
Details of the Curve for this Game: This game should absolutely have a curve, one that hurts the Spartans. On paper, Michigan State was expected to come into this game and blow James Madison out. Even acknowledging the resume of JMU was better than most knew, this was still expected to be a tune up game - not an NCAA Tournament style clash between big and little program. JMU may have looked like a Big Ten opponent in this game but they are not one. This means take the grades below with a lot of salt. The real assessment is that the curve should mean each of these grades is a notch or two lower than what is awarded because JMU is not a peer program.
Offense: C- (It’s only that high because of Walker, this could have been a D)
For the second game* in a row (*technically Tennessee was an exhibition) MSU started incredibly slow. A combination of James Madison defensive intensity and MSU simply missing shots led to MSU scoring just 7 points in the first 8 and a half minutes - a stretch more than 5 minutes between field goals for MSU. The concerns that showed up early were Mady Sissoko looking lost; Jaden Akins looking lackadaisical without the ball and failing to rotate multiple times; and everyone looking like they were forcing the ball without much success.
Watching Tyson Walker miss back to back free throws midway through the first half was a microcosm of the shooting struggles for the Spartans. The entire team went 2 for 10 from the free throw line during the first 12 minutes. That plus inability to shoot held MSU to just 10 total points in that period.
MSU’s offense started to find some traction as Walker and Coen Carr willed the team to wake up. From 7 to 3 minutes left in the first half, MSU cut JMU’s lead in half. MSU’s scoring woes were directly related to Malik Hall and Jaden Akins looking impotent on the floor prior to them both being limited by foul trouble.
In the second half both Hall and Akins seemed to realize there was a real game being played. They both demonstrated the ability to create their own shot and convert. The question has always been for Hall why he does not do that more consistently and while it’s early, the same may soon be asked of Akins.
The concern for this offense was they were trading blows with James Madison for almost four minutes with only one Dukes’ starter on the floor. The idea of what would have happened without the pile of fouls called against JMU is terrifying.
An offense that was 1 for 20 from three point is going to struggle offensively. The scale of the struggle was hard to watch.
Outside of a truly incredible performance from Tyson Walker (led the team in multiple stats: 35 points, 6 steals, 3 assists) the offense was anemic. Coen Carr’s 14 points were a welcome addition, but even his athleticism and edge disappeared as he clearly tired. Single digit scoring from every other player, and none of them having more than 4 points individually in the second half is why this team lost.
The early defense was simply not great. James Madison exploited transition early on to run quick offensive sets that caught the Spartans off guard. Particularly Mady Sissoko looked lost as he let a slip to the basket that required Malik Hall to give a foul to avoid an easy layup (a move that haunted them a few minutes later when Hall committed his second foul before the 16 minute timeout). Compounding the defensive problems were rebounding issues that saw JMU almost double up the rebound total on the Spartans early on.
MSU started to slow JMU down a bit by getting back on defense. Fouls also started to change things as Mady Sissoko committed two and paved the way for an upgrade in Carson Cooper on the floor. That and both of JMU’s big men had two fouls midway through the half.
The real turning point came after the 7-minute mark in the second half. MSU’s defense started to clamp down after JMU secured a 13 point lead. That helped fuel a comeback that made the close of the half a lot closer. It also helped MSU that JMU had so many of its offensive weapons on the bench in foul trouble.
In the second half Michigan State slowed down JMU a decent amount. They looked a lot more locked in on defense and fueled their own fast break quite a bit.
Statistically in regulation MSU did a heck of a job. They had 7-steals and held James Madison to 36.1% on field goals and only 24% on three. This is the type of defensive effort that should be more than enough to win against most teams.
The concern big picture is how much of this MSU was doing against mostly backup players for JMU due to intense foul trouble.
And when it mattered, MSU could not defend.
Coen Carr was an absolute necessity for this team, but he got exposed as a freshman out of position on multiple plays down the stretch. The lineups may be interesting with him moving from the three to four spot, swinging the lineup from big to small approaches, but when he is at the three spot he is being asked to guard shooters too far from the basket. He is not yet ready for that.
Early in the game James Madison looked like the faster team. It made sense as JMU had one of the fastest pace of plays in the country last year. Still, MSU looked underprepared for the intensity and fast hands. The pace let JMU set offensive sets very fast and exploit MSU looking out of position.
By the time Michigan State tied the game up at the start of the second half, transition had faded in importance. The pace had slowed a bit with fouls. Yet when the Spartans tied it up, JMU immediately started pushing the pace and that seemed to favor the Dukes.
When MSU got rolling midway through the second half it started with transition. The power of the Spartan break is it’s guards. When Jaden Akins and AJ Hoggard were not playing well in the first half, it showed up most keenly in the transition game. If those two are not on their games, the team lacks knock down shooters (outside of Walker) that can exploit the perimeter during the break, and they lack the confidence in Sissoko to exploit the block.
In a game where MSU could not buy a three pointer, it became the transition offense led by Tyson Walker and Coen Carr that saved the Spartans, and (briefly) gave them the lead.
In the end, MSU could not overcome their deficiencies shooting the ball through transition. Tyson Walker tired after playing heroically and the rest of the team looked incapable of pushing the ball, or converting (or even attempting) drives.
Tom Izzo coaches the season for March. That means games like this must be something he loves. A close game where he gets his players comfortable with big game situations. So if he is happy great. But… his team looked unprepared.
From the jump in this game, MSU looked a step slow and like they didn’t know the scouting report fully. It felt similar to the Tennessee exhibition game. MSU’s offense also looked stagnant for much of the game. The team relied on Tyson Walker’s ability to create and Coen Carr’s athleticism. For a team that has multiple weapons, they were few offensive sets deployed to highlight, or really jump start his veteran roster.
In the second half Izzo couldn’t get his guys to exploit the precarious foul situation. Yes, Walker was driving and converting, but the other guys have that ability as well and just sat back. Some of that can be fixed by calling some driving sets.
Similarly, the final offensive play call of regulation was uninspired. It basically isolated Walker with the ball with no movement and no clear out. It gave Walker no driving lane, it didn’t feature a designed crash to the board for a put back, and it didn’t put anyone on the three point line for a kick out (ok, that might have been smart on a night where MSU couldn’t buy a three pointer).
In terms of rotations, there were some positives and some negatives. The approach to Mady Sissoko did pay dividends. Sitting him to start the second half and challenging him on the bench to play better helped Sissoko provide a lift in the second half.
Balancing that good move, Izzo rode Malik Hall into the ground. Hall looked gassed down the stretch and became a liability in overtime. Izzo decided to keep Hall and his starters for the first half of overtime instead of going with the game-long spark of Coen Carr (admittedly, Carr had blown a defensive assignment on the last JMU basket of regulation, as well as eventually blew the defense on the three pointer by Hunter that sealed the JMU win).
The adage is “players win games, coaches lose them.” Izzo can’t in-game scheme his way through three of his five starters disappearing for most of the game and the entire roster shooting like they just found out three pointers existed. Still, this is a shocking outcome for a coach that usually has his teams prepared.
Michigan State was dreadful offensively. Beside Tyson Walker, not a single starter impacted this game in any significant way. AJ Hoggard had a strange game (he had a similar issue against Tennessee). Yes, he can’t stack assists when no one is hitting shots, but his game usually includes powerful drives to the basket. In a game with James Madison in so much foul trouble, it was shocking to not see Hoggard lower his shoulder and drive all second half.
Malik Hall and Jaden Akins look like players that have not yet realized the season has started. They look like guys used to hitting some fun looking shots in practice but not having to bear down a full 40-minutes. This is unfathomable for players with their experience and skill.
Amongst the freshman, Coen Carr was essential. Jeremy Fears was clearly needed as well but his impact was limited. That will change for the better as the seasons progresses. Fears was not ready to take over for the starters this early in the season (fair).
Carson Cooper and Tre Holloman both played decently. They are guys that should contribute more but are not expected to carry this team - and neither really show they are ready for a role like that now.
For a unit as experienced as this, this game needs to result in something changing. It’s literally the first game of the season, so there is lots of time to fix things, but the exhibition loss to Tennessee and now this (real) loss to James Madison have enough in common to say there are actual problems to fix with this team.