Michigan State dropped its Big Ten opener to Wisconsin. The Badgers brought a surging offense and a barrage of threes to bury the lethargic Spartans. The 70-57 loss revealed some hard truths about the Spartans, starting with their lack of identity.
Here is my three point shot on the game:
POINT 1: AJ Hoggard’s brief positive run cannot cover a team with zero identity
This is the type of game where many will overreact and say AJ Hoggard is back. After a terrible first half, AJ Hoggard repeated his Arizona performance and helped take over the game for a short stretch in the second half. In this game it was even more exciting because he did it while engaging Tyson Walker in a brief glimpse of what was supposed to be the best back court in the country.
It meant AJ Hoggard scored 14 points and dished 7 assists. The short term magic also ran out. In part because of Hoggard’s inconsistency. In an even larger part though it happened because this team seems to have no identity.
From a coaching perspective it does not seem like Izzo knows what he wants this team to be. (important disclaimer: it’s unclear any coach could pick what they want a team to be when every single player has been inconsistent this year).
Izzo looks hesitant to build the offense around Tyson Walker. Walker has shown flashes of taking over games as the point guard, and clearly can get his points when the offense is run for him at the shooting guard position. Other teams are focusing their defense on Walker, which limits him for stretches, but it also looks like MSU tries to go away from Walker to find scoring diversity that is just not there. MSU has found recent success running their offense through one player (namely Cassius Winston). At some point, Izzo may have to commit to that style again.
Instead, the offense looks like it vacillates between motion, outside spot up shooting and the classic elbow curls. None of these are working because no one is hitting shots. So Izzo keeps cycling through them hoping they might work.
If Izzo wants to stick to those shooting driven offensive sets, perhaps he needs to give Tre Holloman the ultra green light and push him to put up double digit shots each game. With so few players hitting anything, even aggressive shooting that doesn’t always convert might help spread the floor.
Too little, MSU is going to the post. Yes, Cooper and Sissoko are extremely limited down there, but Malik Hall has shown some promise going that route. Last year, AJ Hoggard had success posting up smaller guards, forcing teams to switch and get mismatches for others. Coen Carr’s post game may be rudimentary, but he does not look like he is getting any real offensive touches down there. If your team can’t shoot, turn into a bruising team and clog up the paint. Akins and Carr may be undersized but they have the hops to compete for rebounds.
In terms of personnel, Izzo seems hesitant to commit to Coen Carr, warts and all (more on that below). Carr doesn’t have to play at the expense of Hall (see my next point), but choosing whether you roll with his mistakes or limit his time because of them would help the team overall develop its identity. Players like Mady Sissoko appear confused if they should be playing to limit mistakes, or playing aggressively regardless of mistakes.
This team looks like its defense is something that could win some games for them. If that’s the style they want to stick with then make the game ugly. Go old school Michigan State and muck up the game. MSU has 9 players that play decent minutes, and soon will have ten with the return of Jaxon Kohler (note I am assuming Xavier Booker will not contribute impact minutes any time soon). That’s enough depth to play a brand of basketball that ignores fouls.
Whatever the choice is going to be, Izzo needs to make one. These players need to help him make one by choosing for themselves. The current edition of the Spartans look lost. Deciding who they want to be stylistically would provide a big lift to the team.
POINT 2: Malik Hall is essential to this team, even if you wish he wasn’t
Anyone that doubts the importance of Malik Hall to this year’s Spartan squad should re-watch the first half of this game. Hall was sick all week and questionable for the game after not practicing in more than five days. He didn’t start and the impact on the coherence of the defense was clear. After entering the game at the 16:30 mark, he never left the floor for the rest of the half.
Hall looked slow. He looked like he didn’t have that normal bounce, and at times looked dog tired even mid possession. Still he directed the defense, fought for rebounds and found some moments on the offensive end.
An offensive series late in the half showed the impact Hall can have. He helped open Jaden Akins for his only jumper of the half; then hit a turnaround jumper of his own; before assisting on AJ Hoggard’s best drive of the half. That flurry culminated in an AJ Hoggard long jumper (that looked like a three but wasn’t) that cut the lead to five.
The effort and poise he brought the team kept the Spartans grinding. Izzo may not have known how long Hall could go in this game, so he chose to run him into the ground in that first half. It looked like the Spartans needed that to keep the game within reach.
The decision came back to bite the team in the second half. A clearly gassed Hall started breaking down on defense and was eventually pulled for the game after failing to close out a big three. It was not a coincidence that MSUs defense then essentially gave up the game.
Hall is an essential player for this team this year. The team may have been better if Xavier Booker or Coen Carr were clearly better. They are not, and most likely won’t be this season. For this year, the team absolutely needs Hall, even when he is not at his best.
POINT 3: Coen Carr is the pick your poison guy for Michigan State
Coach Izzo clearly doesn’t trust Coen Carr on defense yet. That’s the right call in some ways. Carr is out of position as often as he is in the right spot for the Spartans defense. It hurts the flow of the defense that relies on switching so much and gap help. On offense, Carr can limit you because of his lack of outside shot (though on this team where no one is shooting well, it’s not that much of a difference).
All of that said, it’s clear he can be a positive on the floor. After playing the three spot alongside Malik Hall for short stretches in the first half, Carr entered the second half to give Malik Hall a well deserved rest. The offense thrived. Carr brought an energy and fight that matched the tempo suddenly created by AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker.
Carr was there for the short lived offensive explosion, even contributing his own rare jumper.
On defense he had a few big plays - a great block that led to a three on the other end included - but also got scored over at least three times, including Tyler Wahl getting his two made buckets over him.
Tom Izzo is going to have to pick his poison with Carr. Does he roll with the blown defensive assignments (something that absolutely galls Izzo) to gain the benefits of his energy and effort? In this game, Izzo clearly preferred a sick Malik Hall. That may not be the right decision as the season continues to develop.
Hall is essential, but Carr needs to be on the floor in a more balanced rotation. At times with Hall at the five. Sacrificing the size may be worth it to get the savvy of Hall and the spark of Carr on the floor together.