Michigan State Men’s Basketball dropped its home opener to James Madison University. JMU may be better than most expected but still the outcome was a shock.
Here are some key storylines to watch out of this game.
POINT 1: Tyson Walker as Game MVP Was an Easy Prediction but What About Coen Carr?
Tyson Walker kept Michigan State in this game. If you listened to Tom Izzo’s postgame presser, Walker’s free throw shooting struggles were also a major reason for the loss. Even with the struggle at the line, Walker was clearly the MVP for MSU in this game. Not a surprise. What is a surprise is the only other player that consistently positively impacted the game: Coen Carr.
Carr had a great first career game. 14-points, 6 rebounds, 1 block and only 1 foul. He also tied for third most minutes with Jaden Akins, behind Walker and Hoggard. On offense, on defense, in transition Carr was all over the floor.
Carr’s athleticism created scoring opportunities. His ability to grab rebounds and put backs helped Tyson Walker open up driving lanes during his 10 straight points to close the second half.
He still had struggles. Carr is clearly not fully up to speed on defense. When he was on the floor in the three spot it created scoring opportunities for James Madison. Late in the game, and in overtime, JMU realized this and would swing the ball to his man for an all too often open shot.
Still, in a game where AJ Hoggard was cramping and ineffectual for long stretches (also known as the entire second half and overtime), Malik Hall struggled with fouls then looked gassed and Jaden Akins barely made his presence known, it was the athletic freshman that stood out positively.
Coen Carr is clearly more than “just a dunker.” And after this loss to JMU this team may actually need him to continue his evolution into a multi faceted threat.
POINT 2: Michigan State’s New Depth Tested Immediately
It didn’t take long for Michigan State to tap into its depth at every position. James Madison came out in the first half and played fast and physical. Blame it on the refs, blame it on early season sloppiness, but the first half became a foul fest that limited both teams. MSU was able to avoid the worst of it by quickly digging into its bench.
Malik Hall picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and Jaden Akins did the same not much later. Mady Sissoko soon followed suit. This pushed the second line into early service. Carson Cooper appeared to be an upgrade over Sissoko before he too picked up two fouls. This was a game where the absence of Jaxon Kohler was felt more deeply than anyone could have expected.
Even after Xavier Booker came off the bench before Coen Carr, yet it was the laters physical presence that changed the trajectory of the half. Carr made hustle plays, crashed the boards, and was absolutely intimidating on defense. The same can be said of Jeremy Fears, Jr. The young point guard had hustle defensive plays in the first half - including two blocks (one strangely not credited to him) - that helped MSU climb back into it.
In the second half MSU still used its depth - this time less for fouls and more because the Spartans were searching for a spark. Outside of Walker and Carr, almost no one was consistent in effort and output.
Michigan State required Carr (see point 1) to survive, and they rolled Holloman and Fears in and out consistently as Hoggard, Akins and Hall all struggled.
In the end everyone looked tired even with all of the early substitutions. It’s early in the year for Walker to play 39 minutes, and few people would have expected Coen Carr to log 28 minutes (tied for third most on the team).
POINT 3: Michigan State’s Center Position is Still a Work In Progress
The Spartans had a glaring weakness last year: the center position. Last year’s squad had three guys that started the season in various stages of rough. All improved during the season. This year it was expected the sophomores would look more polished and senior Mady Sissoko would finally have it figured out after a full year as the starter. It did not look like that in this game.
In the first half, Sissoko brought energy and size but still looked lost too often. Carson Cooper did not put on a show but still looked more settled. It seemed the coaching staff saw that as Cooper came out to start the second half.
Sissoko was challenged by Tom Izzo on the bench before being sent into the second half as a sub. The senior big man respond positively and played better in the second half.
The upside on Cooper becoming more comfortable, and getting longer times to impact the game is starting to raise questions. Sissoko looks like his ceiling is perilously close to what he is producing now. Cooper looks like he might be able to give more.
Until Jaxon Kohler comes back from injury, it’s looking clearer that Cooper is the best option for the Spartans. It will be interesting if Izzo formally moves Cooper into the starting lineup, or prefers to give Sissoko the respect of the starting role but plays Cooper more minutes and in bigger moments.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): The Foul Situation Deserves A Look
This game was in the end not determined by foul calls. That’s almost hard to believe considering how many fouls were called in the first 22 minutes of the game.
The first half was a war of attrition, with both teams going deep into their benches, mostly because of the torrent of fouls being called.
With 18:12 left in the second half, two of James Madison’s starters were on the bench with 4 fouls. Including them, a total of 6 players (4 of 5 starters and two top reserves) were in foul trouble at that point.
From that point forward, JMU had only 3 fouls called on them. That’s the part that makes no sense and needs a deeper look.
It can be credited that JMU pulled back from covering shooters as tightly, which made sense considering the Spartans weren’t hitting anything from outside. It also seemed like MSU’s offense was not driving the ball consistently. Still, the dramatic shift in how the game was officiated threw everything off.
The coaches were rotating guys like the officials were still calling fouls constantly but they weren’t. That drastic of a shift takes a while for coaches to catch up to.
To be clear, MSU would have won this game if they had hit their free throws. It is not the refs fault. The change in officiating mid game though is something that could be the reason for a future loss if not fixed.