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Michigan State Loses to Nebraska: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

The Spartans had a rare good shooting night and still got beat by a team that looked tougher and hungrier down the stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State on paper looked like they had the best offensive game of the year. Yet, they only tallied 70 points and let Nebraska take control in the final four minutes of the game for the win. The Spartans look like a bad team at this point. The grades are potentially a bit kinder then they might be, but the overall lesson is this team is completely lost.

Details of the Curve for this Game: Nebraska should be a team MSU can dominate. They have great shooters and balanced offense but they are relatively small inside. Nebraska can beat teams when they are hitting outside, but in theory they should not have the talent to challenge MSU. That didn’t work out in this game as Nebraska shot the lights out for stretches.

Offense:

The Spartan offense started like it was creating a highlight reel of everything that has gone wrong this year. The first possession saw Mady Sissoko mishandle a fast pass and bobble it into a near turnover. Tyson Walker took a long three that looked like he was thinking about the mechanics of it the whole time - i.e. over thinking it into a brick. In transition, AJ Hoggard was hesitant driving and got blocked. Twice Malik Hall ended up with the ball late in the shot clock and looked like he wanted nothing to do with shooting.

Michigan State kicked off a 9-2 run behind some scrappy play. The best moment of the run came on back to back plays by Akins, a smooth looking three pointer and a full court transition layup. The plays looked like the Akins of last year. The next possession looked like the Akins of this year as he held the ball at the top of the key, decided out of rhythm to drive and coughed the ball up like a freshman in their first game. Appropriately, Coach Izzo yelled about it during the timeout.

A lineup featuring Hoggard, Walker and Holloman (with Hall and Cooper) looked like one of the most balanced lineups of the year. Akins had looked more on track than he has in many games, but the offense still looked like it was struggling. The trio of Walker, Hoggard and Holloman actually created pressure on the offense. A three from Holloman, a three from Hall and two great passes by Holloman into the lane (one in transition, one to Hall underneath) actually looked like a functional offense. It’s sad that is the bar, but after the last few games even the two minute stretch was notable.

The shooting, that has been missing in action for so much of the season, showed up in the first half for the Spartans. It seemed the approach was to shoot it - even if they were missing. Akins, Holloman, and Walker all had terrible misses early on but everyone kept shooting. The team shot 50% from three for the first half.

The offense started the second half slowly. While Nebraska went off with lights out shooting, the shooting for Michigan State slipped. The early offense came from tough drives by Malik Hall and AJ Hoggard.

A timely three by Akins kept MSU in the game. That type of shooting has been missing all year and it showed how much it changes MSU offensively. Even with the struggles in the second half, the offense looked like it had flow because they were able to take and hit long range shots.

Going small for a second time around the 12-minute mark experimented with how much they could spread the floor. Tyson Walker fed a leaping Coen Carr for a highlight reel dunk that could help make that lineup truly devastating.

The offense kept grinding but not breaking through. Tre Holloman had two back to back floaters that looked great but did not fall. He was being aggressive - which they need on offense - but not connecting. It’s still too early in Holloman’s development to know if he can get that offense consistent.

Walker continued to struggle then finally hit a big three that cut the lead to one (after a previous goal tending call was waived off during a timeout). A transition basket and another three out of the 8-minute timeout by Walker tied the game. Another three and the Spartans had the lead for the first time since the opening moment of the second half. A reflection of the team (at least tonight), Walker may struggle but his consistency means he gets rewarded for continuing to shoot.

Walker took over and scored basically 13 straight. The problem that developed was the rest of the team started standing around and watching. The worst moment of that was a late shot clock miss by Walker that he was forced to take from half court because AJ Hoggard lost track of the shot clock.

Once Hoggard went cold, the offense as a whole dried up. At one point Malik Hall put up a brick of a three point shot. To his credit at least he looked willing to take the shot. Akins went back to disappearing in the final 8 minutes of the game and Hoggard looked hesitant to step in (possibly thinking of the Arizona game where he over shot late and got benched the next game).

The offense late was essentially Tyson Walker and no one else. Over the final 10:03 of the game, no player beyond Walker made a field goal. Walker was hot, but he needs help.

This game featured some of the best offense of the year for the Spartans. It still was not enough. It still featured long stretches where it completely disappeared. The team shoots 47% from three and still can’t score more than 70 points. It’s better than poor, but it’s not great.

Offensive Grade: B

Defense:

The Spartans first section of the game showed some promising defense. There were fast hand steals (one credited, another two almost steals) and some early rebounding. Nebraska’s offensive rebounding has been impressive in the early season so it was important for MSU to focus on the glass.

The defense was not as air tight as it has been at times this year. Nebraska was getting open looks and stretching the floor with some ridiculously long range threes (three in a row were from well beyond NBA range). Anyone would have struggled with that much floor to cover.

Underneath, MSU was much stronger, forcing Nebraska to keep shooting from outside. In a game where the offense was finally hitting from long range, the trade seemed like a smart one. It was helped that the Spartans outrebounded Nebraska by 2 in the first half.

The defense to start the second half was simply poor. It didn’t help that Nebraska was shooting lights out. During an 11-2 run to open the half, Akins particularly got beat on a backdoor cut for an easy layup. He was pulled for Holloman early, who immediately had a big three hit in his face.

Michigan State was trying to claw the game back on offense and in transition but the defense kept letting Nebraska hit the big shot. The most confusing element was the consistency with which the Cornhuskers got easy back cuts (and some front cuts) to the rim. Yes, the Spartans were playing mostly without a big man, but the defense was also caught out of position a lot.

The defense just could not stop Nebraska. They couldn’t stop the drives and they couldn’t keep them from hitting outside shots. Playing Coen Carr in a small ball lineup for most of the last 12 minutes led to MSU getting outrebounded down the stretch and getting muscled in the paint. The decision seemed to spark the offense but it left the defense exposed.

The defense was simply not good. Nebraska shot pretty well, but the defense let Nebraska shoot lights out in the paint in the second half. That may have been somewhat personnel, but the players on the floor need to be better.

Defensive Grade: C-

Transition:

The first five minutes of the game saw positives and negatives. The positive: there was actual transition basketball. MSU had two real steals early and almost a third, they also rebounded the ball and got moving down the floor. The negatives were on three clear transition attempts they went 1 for 3 with two of those attempts blocked cleanly. After having no transition game of late the push was promising, the problem early on was the execution.

Transition was a strength early on, even if the ball wasn’t always going through the hoop. MSUI looked a bit more like the traditional Spartans pushing the ball and getting back on defense. The defense included a Tyson Walker savvy steal under the basket that prevented an easy layup. It was a veteran move.

The transition slowed as the first half wore on and was then stopped by a series of poor turnovers in the closing minutes. They were mostly committed by Freshman and is part and parcel with a team relying on and incorporating young players.

The Spartans used a variety of approaches to claw back after an early big lead by Nebraska in the second half. Among them were some aggressive transition plays, including a notable drive in traffic by Hoggard.

In the end, the transition game disappeared. MSU was letting Nebraska score on defense and they were trying to drive the length of the floor and score quickly. AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker repeatedly got muscled off their line and couldn’t convert. Even with a higher pace, the transition game was not very good.

Transition Grade: C+

Coaching:

Coach Izzo cycled through his playing rotation very quickly. By the end of the first time out (or actually just after Malik Hall hit two free throws coming out of the timeout) Izzo had put 9 players on the court. It seems clear the playing rotation (at least until Jaxon Kohler comes back) is starters: Hoggard, Walker, Akins, Hall, Sissoko; and backups Fears, Holloman, Carr and Cooper.

Izzo wasn’t shy about trying out some new lineups. Two early choices were significant. The first, riding the trio of Holloman, Walker and Hoggard, paid dividends. The three point guards looked comfortable and confident together. More importantly, they spread the floor well and were able to get three pointers for themselves and Malik Hall.

The next lineup was even more interesting as Izzo went small. He pulled Cooper and ran with Hall at the five, Carr at the four and Akins at the three with Walker and Hoggard. This lineup didn’t light the game up but it clearly threw off Nebraska. Offensively, MSU abandoned the post and had all five guys playing “shell,” distributed along the three point line. Nebraska dropped their center into basically a zone defense under the basket and scrambled to chase the rotation. Nebraska was able to keep up, but it did lead to some good shots, including a three by Hoggard.

The small ball lineup may have been because Sissoko had two early fouls, but it was definitely something interesting against a Nebraska team without immense size. MSU was able to keep rebounding the ball in the stretch and it kept their commitment to the three going.

Both Hoggard and Akins played some of their best basketball of the season in the first half. It’s unclear what buttons Izzo may have pushed, but getting these two players back to even near the form they were last year is an accomplishment.

The second half offense started slow. Izzo had been able to get some good adjustments out of his team this year. In this game it was Nebraska that came out of the half looking locked in and they went on an 11-2 run for a 42-36 lead that forced an MSU timeout.

The timeout helped spark the Spartans. As MSU was clawing its way back, Izzo again went small. This time with Fears on the floor instead of Hoggard. It spread the floor again and made it look convincing that Izzo had found a changeup that could work against some lineups.

Izzo went back to the small ball lineup out of the 8-minute timeout. It kept the offense flowing and coincided with an offensive explosion by Walker. Part of the decision looked like the need for flow on the floor, the other part looked like a commitment to Coen Carr. Carr played basically from the eleven minute mark through till essentially the end of the game when Izzo brought in Sissoko and Holloman for other late game strategies.

Izzo rode his veterans and committed to the small ball lineup. For most of the game these decisions looked great. In the end, the small ball lineup though takes some of the blame Coen Carr may add flow on the offensive end but he is clearly still a liability on defense. Cooper nor Sissoko were having great games, but the team as a whole missed their (in theory) rebounding. They also got exposed in the paint, as Hall and Carr both failed to provide any consistent rim protection. Again, it’s not like Cooper or Sissoko were doing fantastic, so Izzo looks to have picked his poison. In the end it did not work.

Izzo gets some credit for trying something new. The knock on him is often his stubbornness. The lineup for the final 11+ minutes of the second half was more creative than he usually is. But it also didn’t get the win.

Coaching Grade: B+

Overall:

Michigan State had the type of offensive performance they have been craving all year. They got their four veteran leaders into double figures and spent much of the game shooting 50% from three (some late desperation heaves lowered that). Still they let the game get away from them.

MSU was up 65-62 with 3:02 left in the game. Nebraska went on a 15-5 tear to end the game. No one other than Tyson Walker hit a field goal in the closing ten minutes of the game. Even with the veterans looking more like what you expected, the team played poorly and let a suspect Nebraska team take control and the win.

Overall Grade: C

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?