After crying myself to sleep last night and generally being a Mr. Cranky-Pants all day today, I came to the conclusion that I just had to write this article. I need something to take my mind off of MSU’s season-ending heartbreaker and the best thing would be to start getting excited about next season’s team. And boy do I think there is a lot to be excited about.
But let me start by saying this. I have read all the comments you wrote in my post-game article and there seems to be a lot of clamoring for the return of any of Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, and Tyson Walker (what, no love for Jason Whitens?). Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news to you, but none of them are coming back. I wish I could say this is insider information from sources deep in the MSU athletic department. Sadly, my journalism career has not reached those levels in these past four months. No, this is just my personal belief based on nothing other than I think after four years on college hardwoods, which all three of these players have now had, it is time to move on. This has nothing to do with any feelings I have toward these guys as players or as people in general. But they have had their college careers, and they are ready to take the next steps now.
Fear not about losing these three key contributors. Between the talent coming back, the incoming freshmen recruits, and even the potential for bringing in someone from the portal (reports already starting about MSU contacting a few players in this year’s portal), the 2023-24 basketball team should be better than this years. As of now, the players we have are:
Seniors: AJ Hoggard, Mady Sissoko
Juniors: Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks,
Sophomores: Carson Cooper, Tre Holloman, Jaxon Kohler,
Freshmen: Xavier Booker, Coen Carr, Jeremy Fears, Gehrig Normand.
The above list is eleven deep. You may recall that this past season’s rotation, at its deepest, was only ten deep, and that it shrunk to eight by the time the tournament arrived. The eleven doesn't include the possibility of any grabs from the portal and it also doesn’t include the very strong likelihood that one of them leaves for the portal. But let’s pretend for the sake of this article that this is the team that Tom Izzo will have next year.
I think Izzo really enjoyed having two players starting who had point guard capabilities and depth behind it. Last year, Izzo started Hoggard and Walker, and Holloman was the third PG. Generally, two of them were on the floor at all times. So I think Izzo will repeat that scheme next year. And it is my belief (perhaps wishful thinking) that Jeremy Fears is going to slide into that 2nd guard spot alongside Hoggard. I don’t know if that will be the case for the season opener, but I think at worst by the time January rolls around, he will have made his way into the starting five. This will keep Holloman subbing in for both of them. I expect some off-season development, as well as the competition from an incoming freshman, to help raise Tre’s game, and he will be an improved version of himself next year, maybe ready to contribute 10-15 minutes per game. And speaking of improvement, AJ is going to train harder than ever this offseason. He knows he only has one more run left, and he is unquestionably the leader of this team. I think we see an even more assertive player next year who will be able to attack the lane regularly and score through contact, but I also expect to see further improvement to both his three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. I expect first-team B1G from him.
Moving on from point guards to the wing, Jaden Akins will maintain his starting spot as the “small forward”, the quotes being used as basketball in general has moved away from the traditional position names aside from point guard. “Wing” and “Big” are now the other roles. So Akins occupies the 3-spot, and I think he is the returning player who we see the biggest jump from. We already saw a big jump in his game from his freshman to sophomore campaign (as well as the progress he made throughout this past season), and I think we get it again as he enters the upper-classmen ranks. His defense, which already was arguably the team’s best, will get national recognition. Like Hoggard, I think he becomes an even more consistent threat from behind the arc. I really hope he gets a shooting coach this offseason and learns to shoot a little more squared up as opposed to turned 45 degrees like he does now; I think that will pay dividends to his statistics. And with a little more strength in his legs, I think Jaden could give us some more explosive dunks and defenders on posters.
Backing up Akins I think is the biggest question this offseason, but not due to limited options. Pierre Brooks (I know he is a lot of TOC Nation’s most likely to hit the portal) was once considered a massive three-point threat, but that vanished as this season got underway. So, if that part of his game can return, he gives Izzo a great weapon on the second unit. Short of that happening, and I will admit I am pessimistic on him at this point, then there will be a battle between two freshmen for this back-up spot, Carr and Normand. Or maybe we get best case scenario and they both prove to be serviceable. Maybe it will be matchup dependent, varying from game to game which of them plays, or maybe we see a second unit with both of them playing the wing role along with just one PG and two bigs. This last option would mean MSU could do full line changes and be a solid ten deep again.
Moving to the front court, I think we are going to see prized recruit Xavier Booker end up as the traditional power forward, though not a new-school “Stretch 4” unless he has a three-pointer in his arsenal that I am unaware of. What I am most excited to see from Xavier in a Spartan uniform is his heralded passing ability. If it is as good as hyped, this will allow MSU to have a strong inside-out game with Xavier drawing double teams in the lane and then kicking it out to an open shooter, or even dropping it off to his fellow front-court teammate for some bunnies. And if the defense doesn’t double him, then he’ll just get the points himself. Yes, I have high expectations for this guy. With Joey Hauser moving on, the player with the longest leash in the Tom Izzo era is no longer there to monopolize the minutes at the 4-spot. And you know Coach is going to take every opportunity he can to pull Booker out and coach him up. Which means we actually need a backup who can play considerable minutes here. And I think that role is going to go to Jaxon Kohler. And I think that, unlike Booker, Kohler is going to be able to stretch out a little bit further with the ball. Maybe he isn’t a three-point threat yet, but he could hit some jumpers from just inside the arc. And of course, he will still have the moves we got to see on limited occasions this past season, so we know he can fill it up in the paint also.
Finally, the center position, and here is where I think my biggest surprise is. I predict Carson Cooper will win the starting job this off-season. We saw just enough glimpses from the 6-11 hidden gem to believe that an off-season in the weight room and studying film will get him to the point where he can take 20 minutes per game. I do think he and Mady will end up playing a pretty even amount of minutes though, partially due to the fact that they both do tend to get in foul trouble frequently, but also just to help keep each fresh for defending the opponents’ big men (Edey and Gunther gone - going to need to research for another article who the best big men in the conference will be next year).
In review, I believe MSU’s starting lineup next year will be Hoggard, Fears, Akins, Booker, and Cooper. And the second unit will be Holloman, Carr, Normand, Kohler, and Sissoko. Yes, I realize that means the starting five would feature two freshmen and one sophomore, and only two upperclassmen. But I don’t believe these are your average freshmen. Plus, I think having at least one upper classman, Mady in this case, for the back-ups will help provide some on-court leadership. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a complete preview without mentioning the Iron Mountain All-Stars. Brooks may fall here if he stays, and he will play alongside the legacies: Davis Smith, Nick Sanders, and Steven Izzo - who will score at least ten points next year.
So there it is, next year’s Big Ten regular season and tournament champions, and hopefully Izzo’s ninth final four team. I hope I just made you all forget about yesterday.