Michigan State took down the USC Trojans 72-62. Michigan State did what was required in the NCAA tournament - they won and advanced. Despite that relatively lackluster billing, their showdown with the USC Trojans had elements of everything that makes the Spartans capable of making a serious run this March, and how quickly they could fumble it away.
The game ended in victory. The win featured a collectively positive performance, even as the Spartans pursued an atypical offensive approach. Win and advance is all that matters. Still the game is worth looking at in detail.
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 Showed What Makes Them Dangerous - and Vulnerable - in March
Michigan State came into this game as a confusing squad. This is a team that dragged out wins through defensive grit because they lacked offensive firepower. This is a team that fired 80+ points in the closing 4 games of the regular season. This is a team that barely showed up to the Big Ten Tournament before losing in dispiriting fashion to a mediocre Ohio State squad.
It was fair to wonder which team would show up in the NCAA Tournament. The version of Michigan State that won this game didn’t really fit any of its previous iterations.
This Michigan State team played most of the first half using the three pointer as a third or fourth option on offense. They drove into the lane and posted up USC’s players 1 through 5 (even if that was less often at the five spot).
Michigan State used physicality, that had so often seemed lacking in Big Ten Play, to outmuscle USC on the boards and in the lane. If this is any indication, USC should not be thrilled about its impending move to the Big Ten.
The Spartans offensively looked more individually focused - while being successful - than it has at almost any time this year. USC may have been the perfect matchup for this type of offense, but MSU found a way to pivot to that style of play and impose their will during crucial stretches.
Successful NCAA tournament teams either win by being overwhelmingly better than everyone they face, or by being able to adapt to playing multiple styles that perfectly exploit their opponent into a win.
Michigan State was by no means perfect in their game plan. Despite this, they displayed a surprising amount of diversity in their offensive approach.
They paired this with a defensive approach that clearly locked down USC top scorers. AJ Hoggard, Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins (more on him later) combined to turn USC’s Boogie Ellis into essentially a non-factor. Boogie played 35 minutes and still only scored 6 points. That is a ridiculous amount of defensive effort. Yes it turned USC’s center, Joshua Morgan into a one man wrecking crew (seriously, how does this guy score 14…) but it was worth it in the end.
All of this play that showed how MSU can be a better collective than individuals was still somewhat undercut. MSU got out of sorts in the first half - either through their own lack of focus or Izzo’s incessant substitutions - and let USC back into the game.
After asserting control in the second half, the Spartans gave everyone late Iowa type nightmares by giving USC every conceivable chance to sneak back into the game at the end including: 6 straight empty offensive possessions, AJ Hoggard missing the front end of two 1 and 1s, Sissoko missing the front end of a 1 and 1, and Hauser somehow forgetting how to hit free throws.
Those stretches and end of game shenanigans bring this team back down to earth. As fans will be (deservedly) excited after this game, the outlook for the Spartans still often resides on those weakness more than their potential.
POINT 2: Speed Rotating Centers Was a Fascinating Approach
At various points in this game both Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper played minutes that were among the best of their respective careers. They also played some minutes that were utterly embarrassing. Seriously, they combined to let USC’s extremely limited offensively center Joshua Morgan throw down 14 points, and at one point lead a personal 8-2 run against MSU.
These two centers have had moments this year. They have also struggled. This game took that formula and played it at 100x speed. Izzo’s obvious game plan with his centers was to tell them play as hard, fast, and aggressive as possible - and trust that I will take you out.
Izzo stuck to this so much that at half time he apologized for Sissoko letting 6 straight points be scored on his terrible defense, stating his center was tired and that “was my fault.”
This was a new approach to the center position. Let his guys be who they are, crank it up to 11 and let it ride.
It may have been matchup specific - USC is notably NOT good in its interior. Compared to essentially every single Big Ten Team USC does not match up. Still this was a fascinating approach. Even if MSU got burned through Morgan’s many wildly open dunks, it meant his centers were freelancing for blocks and rebounds throughout the game.
It unleashed a much more aggressive Mady Sissoko. Seemingly freed from the concerns about how many minutes he could stay on the court, Sissoko played with abandon. Fouls, energy, ability to focus defensively be damned, this version of Sissoko sold out for every play within five feet of him.
Jaxon Kohler played a brief stint in the first half but is simply not built for this type of open range defense. Quickly, Carson Cooper became the number two to this speed rotation with Sissoko. Cooper has similar length and energy - and similar lack of polish at times.
Both centers got exposed defensively, yet they also seemed to be challenging shots that were a mile away from them on every single possession. It is astounding that Cooper is not credited with any blocks, and Sissoko only 2. Both played like they had 5 or 6 blocks each - and more importantly impacted the game in stretches like they were playing that way.
It remains to be seen if Izzo thinks this is a long term strategy or a one time good idea for USC. Marquette will have different challenges. That said, playing Cooper and Sissoko in 2-5 minute bursts of energy worked out better than many of the game where they played much more traditionally.
POINT 3: Jaden Akins is a Difference Maker Even When Not Scoring Tons
Michigan State’s scoring explosion over the closing stretch of the regular season had one driver: Jaden Akins. Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser have been propping up the offense throughout the year - and did so again tonight. It wasn’t until Akins started consistently scoring in double digits and changing games with his athleticism and pure shooting that MSU started piling up big scoring totals.
In this game, Akins showed how crucial he is - and can be in the future - even if his offense is not lights out. Akins was only 1 for 5 from three. Considering he was shooting near 48% from three for long stretches of the season this is definitely a regression.
That said, Akins was 5 for 12 overall, had 6 rebounds and 3 steals. Beyond that, his offense changed the game and put USC in impossible positions. From flying dunks, to leaping rebounds, to timely hands on defense Akins was everywhere.
In a game where AJ Hoggard was limited due to foul trouble - and at times seemed to be playing out of control - Akins looked smooth, confident and like a driving force throughout.
Akins compiling 34 minutes in a big game is no longer a story line. The player that spent the first half of the season coming back from a serious foot injury is changing games at the right time of year.
In this game Akins often felt like the difference. Hauser’s 17 kept Michigan State in it, Akins athleticism helped them pull away.
If Akins can continue this, MSU can make an interesting next game - and hopefully next weekend out of this tournament.