The Spartans lost to Nebraska to go 0-2 in the Big Ten and fall below .500 for the season. The shooting touch seemed to return for the Spartans, and Jaden Akins and AJ Hoggard actually played pretty well. Still, the team as a whole could not find a defensive stop when it mattered and let the game slip away in the closing minutes. A trend that is becoming all too worrying this year.
Here are my three points on the loss that you should know:
POINT 1: If it’s not time to panic, then it’s unclear what we should be doing - and it seems like Izzo isn’t any clearer either
Against Nebraska, Michigan State did almost everything that they have failed to do for so much of this season. They shot the ball well, hitting nearly 50% from three for most of the game. They had offensive production from AJ Hoggard and Jaden Akins. They had solid games from Malik Hall and Tyson Walker. They even had a freshman play significant minutes - answering all the critics that suggest Coach Izzo doesn’t want to play his freshmen.
Yet, the team evaporated when it mattered. The defense was poor. The rebounding - while even on paper - felt imbalanced, particularly late in the second half when MSU went with a small ball lineup (more on that below). And to close the game, the offensive steps Hoggard and Akins showed for much of the game disappeared. Akins particularly went from a key part of the offense to ball watcher late.
After an AJ Hoggard basket at 10:03 left in the second half, no one outside of Tyson Walker hit a field goal the rest of the game. No one wins games that way. Even if part of that was a hot streak Walker went on, the rest of the team has to contribute something. Otherwise, defenses can do what Nebraska did, and collapse on Walker daring anyone else wearing a Spartan uniform to even shoot (something they rarely looked comfortable doing late).
The Spartans are getting nothing from their centers. Mady Sissoko looks worse than he did at almost any time last year. Carson Cooper has regressed to an ineffectual state. His lack of rebounding against a team with limited size may be the most concerning performance of his career.
Coach Izzo focused on the centers poor play in his post game press conference. Many others will focus on that as a key element of the problem, but it’s not like this surprised anyone. All year the centers have been underperforming. MSU’s struggles this season are in part due to the centers, but the fix has long been getting the veteran backcourt going.
Tonight, they did that. And they still looked like a terrible team.
This team has had chances to win almost all of its games this year late in the second half. This is at least the third loss where the Spartans led in the final four minutes and finished losers. Shooting was an easy culprit, but when you have a veteran team losing late in games you have to look deeper.
Right now, the deeper look at Michigan State reveals a shallow pool, lacking effort, identity and grit. If it’s not time for panic, then it’s time for something that actually brings back the identity of a winning program.
POINT 2: The small ball lineup was a good option, but they are not ready for it yet
Michigan State’s went with their best players against Nebraska. They moved away from position basketball and deployed athletes. They did this in large part because the centers were playing so poorly. They also went to it because MSU has a deep set of backcourt talent who are clearly the better players overall. It worked in the first half in a short stretch and it almost worked in the second half for most of the final 11 minutes. The problem is, their personnel are just not ready yet.
The small ball lineup is headlined by playing Malik Hall out of position over the centers and getting three of the four true guards on the team on the floor together. It looks pretty, and it stretches the floor in a way none of the lineups with a true center can. The problem is the player it needs to make it work: Coen Carr.
Coen Carr has quickly become a crucial player for this team. In my write up after the loss to Wisconsin, I called for him to get more playing time, even if it came alongside Malik Hall exactly the way he did against Nebraska. He’s physical. He helps push the pace in transition, and he can occasionally serve as a decent rim protector. This game proved there are still substantial limits as he is learning the college game.
Carr is not disciplined enough on defense to make this lineup work. He’s a freshman, so this is not a long term indictment. He has plenty of time to learn and improve. The problem is the team as a whole cannot wait that long, they need it right now. They need it this year.
Last year, MSU went small to close out some key games. The combination of Malik Hall at the five and Joey Hauser at the four was a potent combination. Offensively, Houser brought a lot to the game that has clearly been missed this year. The defensive presence he brought may be an even bigger problem. Hauser was a savvy defender who found his way to rebounds. Carr is not that yet.
Going small with an undisciplined defender at the four spot is asking for problems like MSU had tonight. MSU got beat in the paint, and let Nebraska pull away.
Michigan State will need the small ball lineup this year - even after Jaxon Kohler comes back. They need to get Carr up to speed defensively, or get their guards to hit enough shots to balance the defensive liability.
Heck, Izzo may even want to experiment with an even smaller small ball lineup (call it the extra small lineup) and throw all four point guards on the floor with Hall. It will leave them vulnerable down low, but they are that way anyway right now.
At this point, creativity is needed. Izzo showed some of that against Nebraska riding the small ball lineup for so long. Hopefully, they can find some further non-traditional ways to spark this team overall.
POINT 3: Malik Hall had the kind of game that makes you wish there was more for him, and from him
Malik Hall played well in this game. His career has had ups and downs. He has rarely been consistent night to night in terms of offense or go to moves. He has also failed to be the “go-to-guy” throughout his career. Still, he plays with effort and does a lot of the little things often missed by the box score (or fans).
Hall made the small ball lineup work last year because he was willing to guard centers (something Hauser truly hated doing). He makes the defense work at times because he can direct traffic. He keeps possessions alive because he does have the ability to create his own shot in the post. Still he is limited.
On a team with more people hitting shots, with more grit and leadership on the floor, Hall would be a great addition to this team, helping them become dangerous. But as he trades games with Tyson Walker for the only player on Michigan State’s roster capable of scoring, his limitations become all too clear.
Hall has been through a lot and deserves better. And it’s probably unfair to say, but Michigan State needs him to be more than that above average role player. They need him to find a gear, an attitude, and an edge that this team is missing.
It feels like when MSU needed Aaron Henry to become a high volume scorer and offensive leader, when he worked better as a change of pace wing. Henry eventually found some of that grit. Perhaps Hall can find it as well. The season will rely on it for these Spartans.