Michigan State traveled to Ann Arbor for round 2 of their rivalry games against in-state foe University of Michigan. The build up to the game was overshadowed by the tragic events on Michigan State campus that left 3 students dead and 5 more in critical condition.
On a night where the University of Michigan handed out t-shirts to their student sections showing support for Michigan State, the crowd pushed their home team to a big win.
Michigan State collapsed down the stretch, allowing a game they seemed to have in control, transform into an embarrassing twelve point loss that should haunt them. .
Here are my shoot from the hip takes on the game. Like an end of shot clock heave, ready them and let me know what your deep shot after the game is in the comments.
POINT 1: Michigan State is missing something, and its getting very late for them to find it
This was never going to be an easy game. Even before a disgruntled individual went to Michigan State campus and opened fire in a completely senseless act of violence that changed everything, this was not going to be easy.
For the first half, Michigan State looked like it had the situation under control. They controlled the emotional tone after extensive, and very heartwarming, tributes to those impacted by the shooting. The team looked like they were in control on the court as well.
Michigan State came out firing. It shot over 50% in the first half. It had three of their core players heating up with Hauser leading all scorers with 12, Hall contributing an impactful 9 points, and Walker letting the offense run through him to add 8 points.
Yet, if you looked closely, something was off. Michigan State’s defense let Michigan shoot nearly 50% in the first half. Despite Hunter Dickinson having a poor first half, Michigan was rolling with its guards racking up points. And the final 4 minutes of the half saw Michigan stop turning the ball over, and start closing the gap.
The half time score was 36-33. On the surface, MSU looked like the team in control, but under the surface the disaster was starting to churn.
Both teams came out firing again in the second half. Pretty soon though, Michigan State’s offensive woes reemerged. Despite spending most of the first half on pace to score in the upper 70s, maybe even 80!, MSU started to struggle to score.
By the end of the game, Walker would score only 3 points in the second half, Hall would add only 5, and even Hauser only scored 8 points in the second half. While MSU scored 70+ points for the second time in 2023, they let Michigan run rampant.
Defensively, MSU sold out to control Hunter Dickinson. They gambled that Michigan’s young backcourt wouldn’t cash in - they were wrong in this game. Michigan repeatedly found three pointers that doomed Michigan State. Further, they allowed Michigan’s backup center, freshman Tarris Reed Jr. to launch Michigan’s end of game flurry of points and blocks, closing out the Spartans in frankly embarrassing fashion.
The Spartan’s performance in the second half saw every single problem MSU has battled this season resurface. It saw trouble at the five spot (more on that later), and it saw the team’s scoring drought issues contribute to a 9-minute stretch without a field goal. Offensively, MSU turned the ball over at crucial points in the second half. And to add insult to injury, the team’s defense simply collapsed..
If MSU can hang its hat on anything this year, it’s been their ability to limit the other team’s shooting. MSU routinely keeps teams shooting less than 38%, and often limits their opponents to season worst performance from three. This game was the exact opposite. Michigan shot 50% overall, and 35% from three. Even that poor shooting from three was offset in part because Michigan took 5 more threes than MSU. It also outpaced the Spartans, as their shooters shot about the same percentage.
This game proved that Michigan State cannot win a shootout. The Spartans MUST win through their defense. They simply do not have the firepower to win a game that turns into an offensive competition.
In the end, Michigan State also showed something much more concerning: a lack of grit. If not grit, then call it leadership.
AJ Hoggard should be the leader of this team. Early in the season he was limiting turnovers, and using his emotions to drive the team. Of late, his offense has disappeared. Even as Hoggard has seen his per game assist tallies remain more than respectable, there is an odd sense the offense moves better with him off the court.
But Hoggard’s inconsistency as a leader is nothing new. MSU is blessed with a strong core of experienced players that should offset this issue. Joey Hauser has seen it all at MSU. Tyson Walker has the game, and the knowledge to calm the team down, and will them to a victory. Malik Hall - in his first truly impactful game since returning (see next point) - is at his best a game changing talent with the sweat equity to demand the team follow him. And yet, this all collapsed.
Maybe it was simply too many minutes for Hauser (35), Hoggard (32), and Walker (34). Maybe it was too many shots rimming in and out for Akins - who seemed to have a statistically impossible number of shots rim out of the basket. Maybe it was the emotions of the week.
Or most damning of all, maybe the multiple questions about what it might be, mean it is something more basic: this team does not seem to have the “it” it takes to will themselves to victory in big games.
It’s late in the season for this team to still be searching for an identity. Games like this, even amidst the turmoil of all that has gone on, are important because they start to show the end of season mettle of a team. And this team looks like it is coming up short in the mettle department.
POINT 2: Michigan State is Still Lost in its Rotations at the 5 Position
Stop me if you’ve heard this, “MSU has a problem at center.” It’s late in the season to be complaining about the same thing. From concerns about the seeming lack of effort to bring in a center through the transfer portal over the summer till tonight, it’s been easy to lead any critique of MSU with a comment about the center position.
Tonight’s game showed the concerns at the 5 spot go well beyond the normal problems for this team.
Michigan State tried Mady Sissoko, Jaxon Kohler, Carson Cooper, Joey Hauser and Malik Hall at the five spot tonight. Yes, you read that correctly, Malik Hall played center. That is HALF the scholarship players on Michigan State’s roster.
And the reality was, none of them provided the answer. Kohler had some nice offense. Mady had some good defense on Dickinson in the first half, and Cooper actually played decently in some stretches, doing just enough offensively and defensively to be tantalizing - though not enough to look like a consistent answer.
Because of the concern at the five spot, Michigan State tried a bunch of creative lineups tonight beyond Mady Sissoko at the 5. Despite Kohler doing well offensively, his atrocious defense led to MSU running with Cooper substantially more than they have recently (their official time difference is 8 minutes for Kohler, and 9 for Cooper - I could swear that felt very different).
To counter Michigan putting both of their centers on the floor - a lineup Michigan is using more and more frequently recently - Michigan State paired both Kohler and Sissoko with Carson Cooper at the four for very short stretches. This seemed to work ok defensively, but of course left the team with less offensive threats when it was Mady and Cooper on the floor together.
In the second half, with Sissoko limited by fouls, MSU went to Cooper at the 5 over Kohler. It did not work. Cooper was on the floor as Michigan went on a 10-2 run that put Michigan ahead for the first time since early in the first half.
After Sissoko formally fouled out, MSU tried to counter by going small. It was a fascinating matchup, featuring Michigan’s Dickinson and Reed on the floor together facing Joey Hauser at the four, and Malik Hall at the five.
Immediately, Michigan made MSU pay for it, as Dickinson schooled Hall. More concerning was on the offensive side, Michigan State did absolutely nothing to try and make Michigan pay for playing two players who are terrible pick and roll defenders. Instead, MSU looked lackluster on offense playing their five best players. This group settled for wild threes or drove the lane with minimal planning, allowing Michigan’s Reed to get three blocked shots in the games final 3-minutes.
The small lineup for Michigan State allowed Michigan to blow the game open in the final two minutes, ballooning a close game into a 12-point loss.
Michigan State still does not know what it wants to do. The limitations around Sissoko have been evident since early on. Yes, Izzo has plated Kohler and Cooper at times more minutes than expected. Izzo also experimented a few weeks ago while Hall was out with the “big” lineup featuring Cooper at the four. And throughout the season the small ball lineup featuring Hauser or Hall at the five has been deployed.
The problem is, the small ball lineup was almost never given more than 90 seconds of game time per game. And the big lineup with Cooper at the four spot was abandoned as soon as Hall came back. This means MSU has really not found the rotation they need to make up for their deficiency at the five. And teams like Michigan are going to make MSU pay for that.
It’s late in the season to still be figuring something as basic as their rotation at the five. More than any one players limitations in this role, the lack of clear rotation at the five will be much harder for the Spartans to overcome in the postseason.
POINT 3: Malik Hall Almost Looked Like the Game Changer He Is Capable of Being
For the first time since Malik Hall returned from his latest stint on the injury list, he looked like a game changer. Hall has always been extremely talented The knock on his game has always been the need to find the core identity through which he would impact a game. A way to focus all that talent.
In the first half, it looked like Hall had finally found it. Looking as healthy as he has been since the very beginning of the season, there was a stretch where Hall had an alley oop dunk, a driving one handed “I-belong-in-the-NBA” type dunk, and a three pointer. These were plays that 10 days ago Malik Hall was not making.
Admittedly, Malik struggled in the second half to find that level of impact. He only scored 5 points in the second half. His first half level impact was missed down the stretch.
Regardless, the first half performance for Malik Hall should bring hope to every Spartan fan watching. If Hall can start being THAT guy for more minutes a game, Michigan State may have an identity they can fall back on as the postseason approaches. This could be the change that alters postseason expectations.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): Thank you to the Michigan Fans
I really wasn’t sure all the tributes included in this game would work. I think the pep band playing the MSU Alma Mater was wonderful and the moment of silence after it as powerful as expected. The student section’s t-shirts impressed me. They were clearly MICHIGAN fans, but had a small acknowledgement of MSU. And the way the students held up signs sharing the message of #SpartanStrong was wonderful. A true moment of life transcending sports rivalries.
I will also admit, I felt like Fox may have overplayed the moment. Fox had a great interview with Tom Izzo they obviously wanted to share. The package before the game that featured a clip of Izzo speaking at the memorial seamlessly added to the direct to camera interview was great.
Seeing that same direct to camera interview two to three times more, in the middle of a heated rivalry game started to feel out of place. Nothing that Izzo said was out of place, it was the choice to play it coming back from a few commercial breaks.
I wish Fox had played the full interview at the start of the game, or even waited to show some parts of it at half.
This game was in part about getting a sense of normalcy back. Going from the intense action of the game to the tributes multiple times created an emotional whiplash that I believe could, and should, have been avoided.
The remembrance at the start of the game was fantastic by all. From there, let it be about the game. The Michigan Student section got that message, and I think so should everyone else involved.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what your takeaway from the game in the comments.
EDITORS NOTE: The writer (ME), incorrectly stated that the Michigan Band played MSU’s fight song. That was incorrect, the band played the Alma Mater. As there is no excuse for this error, please direct all anger at Brandon (me) for making this mistake.