The win was driven by defense, shockingly good play by Mady Sissoko and clutch determination from Tyson Walker.
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: Defense Wins Championships - and Big NCAA Games
It is WAAAAY too early to start talking about championships. That said, Michigan State played the type of defense against a top tier offensive squad that makes you wonder what they can do in this tournament. The defense was so good, it made up for the fact that MSU did almost everything offensively you would say would lead to a loss.
MSU hit only two of its three pointers. During the regular season, the Spartans lost all 8 of the games they hit less than 6 three pointers. In this NCAA Tournament, MSU has won both games - hitting just 5 against USC and only two against Marquette. The shooting was poor across the team as Jaden Akins, Joey Hauser, and Malik Hall combined to go just 7 for 23 (30%) from the floor. Add in 0-3 from three for Tyson Walker and in most games that is a disaster.
Instead, this squad found other ways to win. For the second game in a row they improbably dominated the paint for large stretches of the game.
On defense, Michigan State limited Marquette to 38.5% shooting. Even accounting for the Golden Eagles hitting an above average number of threes (11 vs an average of 9 per game), MSU frustrated Marquette’s leading scorers, and forced 16 turnovers.
The Spartans had offensive droughts throughout the game, yet they found ways to stay focused on defense and force Marquette into similar droughts. Marquette was simply unable to get into a flow.
Individually, Jaden Akins and Malik Hall played great games defensively. Even with Akins offense completely disappearing, his defense was essential to this win. Joey Hauser, long derided as limited defensively, found ways to be in the right position throughout the game. And none of this is mentioning the career game from Mady Sissoko (more on him in a moment).
The defensive effort was matched by the rebounding effort. The Spartans had 36 rebounds to Marquette’s 31, but the eye test showed the difference to be much larger. 12 minutes into the game, Michigan State had 5 offensive rebounds to zero for Marquette. That early dominance let MSU pull into the lead. It was only as Marquette started finding ways to get second chance points (and hit threes) that they closed the gap before and after half time.
Michigan State showed excellent defense at various points this season, but looked very shaky at the end of the season. The last two games shog they have re-discovered this defensive mojo. If they can re-discover their outside shooting, this could be a very interesting second weekend of the tournament.
POINT 2: Mady SIssoko Picks a Great Moment to Have His Best Game
Mady SIssoko played the best game of his career against Marquette. It comes after one of his better games of the year against USC. This is Sissoko’s best two game stretch since Gonzaga - Kentucky. It looks like this may be coming from a new approach from the team.
In the win against USC, I called it the “speed rotation” with Carson Cooper. In that game, it appeared that Izzo told his bigs to go out, run as hard and fast as they could and trust that they would be subbed out very fast. That seemed to unleash the best version of Sissoko - aggressive and looking unafraid of making mistakes.
This carried over into this game. Sissoko seemed focused all game. It helped that Marquette lacked a massively physical big man, and their starting center did have foul trouble. Still, Sissoko had key rebounds, key defensive stops, and even chipped in 8 points.
Throughout the game Sissoko kept possessions alive and helped MSU play solid team defense, providing rim protection that has been lacking so much of this season. Still his most impressive contribution was in the closing minutes.
Around the 7 minute mark in the second half, Sissoko was subbed out after he picked up his fourth foul. In the next few minutes, Cooper got taken to task (after an otherwise very good game), and gave up back to back baskets before picking up his fourth foul. The short lived small ball lineup was quickly abandoned after Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro completed his personal 6-0 run against MSU by slipping past Malik Hall for an easy slam.
Sissoko returned with about 4:47 left and MSU only up 1. Over the next three and a half minutes Sissoko pulled down 4 rebounds, swatted two shots, and shut down Ighodaro. SIssoko’s presence triggered a closing run by MSU that saw the Spartans outscore Marquette 17-9.
Sissoko has shown flashes in the past. The already referenced Gonzaga - Kentucky run set sky high expectations that spent the rest of the season crashing to earth. Still, it seems Michigan State may have found something with this one two punch of Sissoko and Cooper.
Both players have similar physiques, and provide length and energy along the back line of the defense. Their relatively matching playing styles - particularly when contrasted to Jaxon’s Kohler’s much more standard post up approach - also allows the rest of the Spartan lineup some much needed consistency. It seems like the team notices the substitution (Sissoko overall still being the better option), but still plays mostly the same way with either Sissoko or Cooper on the court.
So far, this seems to keep the Spartans defense particularly humming. If these two players can keep this going into the second weekend of the tournament, a lot of expectations will change.
POINT 3: Walker Is Clutch And Finds Ways to Win
Tyson Walker has been the guy for much of this season. Even in a game where AJ Hoggard’s play at point guard looked more important than ever, Walker was the final reason MSU pulled this win off. The 23 points make it clear Walker was the leader for the Spartans, how he grinded for those points though is the real story.
Despite being cold from outside, and having an uncharacteristically tough time running the point - even stranger after watching Walker play the point superbly well at USC - Walker found ways to contribute and lead this team.
Walker’s defense set the tone throughout, and his will to score any way he could made the difference.
For much of the second half, Michigan State’s offense looked stuck in the mud. Ball movement stopped, threes weren’t falling, and the team kept getting stuck in end of shot clock situations. In the end, Michigan State solved those problems by making sure Walker had the ball before the 10 second mark on the shot clock. His handle, clutch jump shooting and fearless drives to the basket lifted Michigan State out of the mud and put points on the board.
When Walker had drives going, it opened up lanes for Hoggard. When both of them were driving and converting - Marquette simply had no answer.
Walker has the makings of a Senior legend. Someone that wills his team to victory, and powers a legacy building run. Michigan State needed every ounce of that tonight - and will in the second weekend.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs called a foul every ten seconds): The Officiating…
I want this to be a comment on officiating, NOT just a complaint. I am still unclear if I thought the officiating was actually bad - or if there were just some blown calls in a very physical game. Regardless of good or bad, the officiating in this game came frustratingly close to determining the outcome.
Marquette fans have a lot to complain about as early fouls to Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro clearly impacted Marquette. That said, Marquette closed the final 9-minutes of the first half without having a single foul called against them… that just seems improbable.
Michigan State fans will complain about a blown call where a ball clearly off Marquette was awarded to Marquette and gifted them a key three pointer that tighten up the game. The four fouls on Mady Sissoko included two phantom calls, and at least one of AJ Hoggard’s four fouls was on a blatantly bad call, penalizing Hoggard for running into a Marquette defender that was nowhere near set.
These examples are causes for arguments of course, but they are more important as part of a larger sense that the flow of this game was continually interrupted by the foul calls. Key players for both teams spent extended periods on the bench, and in the end Michigan State was almost forced to play with both of its impactful centers sitting on the bench.
This game was a clear argument for college basketball going to six fouls. With only five, games like this come dangerously close to being decided by the referees, not the actual teams trying to play the game.