On an emotional night that featured extensive and touching tributes to those killed and injured in the mass shooting on campus, Michigan State rode an offensive explosion to a win over Indiana.
The 80-65 win saw Michigan State score their second highest point total of the season (in regulation, they had over 80 against Kentucky in double overtime), and highest against upper major competition.
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: This was a Program Win, Both in Terms of Community and Basketball
The Michigan State community is still reeling from the senseless violence that took 3 student lives and put 5 more in critical condition a little over a week ago. Tributes are visible across campus, and students just returned to classes.
The healing from this violence will take more than just a basketball game. That doesn’t mean a basketball win like this can’t help to the healing.
From the emotional moment of silence that started the game to the 8 seats left empty for the victims, everyone that attended this game had the tragedy on their mind. Indiana players wore warm ups with #SpartanStrong clearly visible. This win meant something to the community, and it clearly meant something to coach Izzo.
Tom Izzo has been one of the faces of Michigan State for decades. His speech at the memorial this past week was a highlight of his long, and proud service to the community (seriously, if you haven’t seen the speech check it out here, it’s only about 5 minutes). The raw emotion and tears Izzo showed sitting on the bench as the final seconds of the game ticked away, was yet another example of how much he cares about the community.
Returning to normalcy is going to be hard for students, faculty, and staff of Michigan State. Gathering on campus for a raucous basketball game - and getting the win - is one step on the long journey towards normalcy.
This game was clearly a program win in what it meant to the community. It was also an important program win from a basketball perspective.
Michigan State has been on a roller coaster this year. It has been frustrating to say the least.
The Spartans have a lineup with 4 to 5 players that can score 15+ points a night, yet almost never score more than 68 points. The team is led by an experienced backcourt, yet they still routinely have double digit turnovers, and rarely seem to get their fast break rolling. They’ve had slow starts that have crippled them.
So when MSU came out slow, and let Indiana dominate early on, getting out to an 8-0 lead, and maintaining that lead for the bulk of the first half, it felt all too familiar. MSU was not passing, they were taking bad shots, and it felt like the emotion of the night would cover an otherwise simply bad night of basketball.
Then Michigan State found itself. In part because of Jaxon Kohler coming in with some valuable minutes, and in large part because Tyson Walker got red hot from three.
Michigan State closed the first half on a 24-7 run, to take a 35-29 lead into the locker room. In the second half, MSU avoided their classic scoring drought and kept pushing the tempo.
This win was driven by some great shooting, some unexpectedly great play at the center position (more on that below), and a return to rebounding fundamentals. Particularly the focus on rebounding felt like the spirit of previous MSU rosters came to help tonight. Tonight, MSU attacked the glass as a team, better than at any time this season.
Michigan State proved they can get it rolling offensively with their talented back court, can out rebound another team, and can stay tough enough to grab the win. That is a program statement they needed to make after an all too shaky previous few weeks.
POINT 2: This is the Backcourt that Makes MSU Dangerous in the Postseason
Tyson Walker turned the tide of this game. His red hot shooting at the end of the first half and into the second half brought Michigan State back from 8 points down and then into the lead. His 23 points and 4 assists made him a dominant factor in this game - even after cramping up severely with 11:15 left in the second half.
His backcourt running mate did not want to be left behind. AJ Hoggard rediscovered his early season form and put on a clinic running the offense, driving the basketball, and drawing fouls - and hitting the free throws. Hoggard had 22 points and 5 assists. His point total was helped as he drove for contact repeatedly in the second half, and ended up hitting 7 of 8 free throws.
This version of AJ Hoggard makes MSU a different team. Combining that version of Hoggard with a Tyson Walker who hunts for his own shot like he did tonight makes MSU dangerous to any team in the country.
It’s been a while since the Big Ten Championship has been in the picture this season. That has meant the measuring stick this year has been can MSU get itself to a point where it can make noise in the postseason. If AJ Hoggard can keep his game this aggressive, and Tyson Walker can keep hunting for his shot, MSU can play with any team in the country, and beat most of them.
That is the backcourt that can lead this team into the postseason with a lot to look forward to.
POINT 3: Michigan State Got the Best Combination of Play at the 5 Spot of the Year
In my analysis of the loss to Michigan, one of my three points was how lost MSU seems with its rotation at the five spot. Michigan State still has some concerns with their rotation at the five, but if they can get performances like the ones Mady Sissoko and Jaxon Kohler gave tonight, those problems will look a lot smaller.
Mady Sissoko had one of his best games of his career. Not since the opening weeks of the season has Sissoko had a game this good. For a player that is often the target of most complaints about Michigan State’s shortcomings this year, it was a triumph to hear the crowd chanting his name.
Sissoko’s stat line does not represent his impact on the game. Formally only getting 3 rebounds and two points for the game, Sissoko had a few stretches where he was absolutely key.
The sequence that had the crowd chanting his name occurred around the 11 minute mark left in the second half. Sissoko dove to the ground to try and grab a loose ball (he slid out of bounds, but the effort was impressive). On defense right away, SIssoko had the block of the year, a thunderous swat as he leapt into the air on help defense. SIssoko spiked the ball straight into the face of an Indiana player that deflected the ball out of bounds and into Michigan State’s possession.
On the next play, Sissoko almost grabbed the offensive rebound, and instead of putting his head down, he sprinted the full court and deflected a transition pass out of bounds, saving a basket. The crowd was deafening in their chants of “MADY! MADY!”
As good as Sissoko looked tonight, Freshman Jaxon Kohler had an even better night. Kohler created offense, including an absolutely stunning move on Indiana star Trayce Jackson-Davis that started with him backing the ball down from near the three point line, and ended on a step through reverse layup. More importantly, Kohler helped dominate on the boards, grabbing 7 rebounds, FIVE of them offensive rebounds. That is more than the entire Indiana Roster.
Kohler found ways to get in Trayce Jackson-Davis’s way on defense. He played a big part of the effort to limit Indiana’s star to only 19 points and 7 rebounds (keep in mind that TJD had been averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds the last five games, and TJD exploded for 31 in the previous game against MSU).
Kohler has proven he deserves more time on the court, and Izzo rewarded him with the two centers for Michigan State playing almost equivalent numbers. Kohler had 19 minutes and Sissoko 18.
One game after the Spartans looked lost in the rotation for this position, the approach seemed crystal clear. Sissoko and Kohler splitting minutes, and MSU going small in strategic spots for the other 3 minutes of the game. Even when MSU went small, they looked like they knew what they were doing - this was not the case in the games against Michigan.
The play of Kohler and Sissoko may mean that Carson Cooper is the odd man out, or will only play if there is foul trouble. If this means Michigan State can settle into a smooth rotation and get solid performances from both at the five spot, then the Spartans are another big step towards being dangerous in the postseason.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what your takeaway from the game in the comments.
EDITORS NOTE: This article originally initially did not clarify that the 80 point total was only the second time in regulation that MSU had scored in the 80s. MSU also scored in the 80s in their double overtime win against Kentucky. Thank you to EricMHH for the catch.