Well that was a game. It’s taken me a couple days to fully recover and digest - how about you? Michigan State played some thrilling games this year from start to literally finish. The season started with a high profile thriller against Gonzaga, and got truly underway in a memorable overtime win against Kentucky. The season featured a crushing overtime loss against Iowa. It has now ended in a memorable and crushing defeat in overtime to Kansas State.
Michigan State had a lot of up and down basketball in between those high profile games. The enduring memory may still be this final game of the season, a 98-93 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats that will always feel like a missed opportunity.
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: A Dude Won This Game - He Just Didn’t Wear Green and White. Still MSU had Some Dudes Show Up Big Time
For non-Michigan State fans this could be the tournament where the name Markquis Nowell becomes legend. Prior to this game, a common refrain from Spartan fans was a hope that Tyson Walker could lead a “Kemba Walker-esque” charge through the NCAA Tournament to an unexpected championship. Ironically, fans may have been right about the spirit of Kemba Walker returning. Unfortunately he may wear white and royal purple.
Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell did everything in this game. I know this is a site dedicated to the Spartans, but everyone should take some time to appreciate this performance from a 5’8” wrecking ball. Even as it wrecked the end of the Spartans season.
Nowell recorded 20 points and an NCAA record 19 assists. His 18th assist came with 1 minute left in overtime of a tied game, where he threw a no-look alley oop while literally trash talking Mateen Cleaves (who he didn’t recognize…but I digress).
After returning from what appeared to be a serious ankle injury, Nowell pulled off one of those, “team of destiny” type plays. As the shot clock ran down on a late in regulation possession, the diminutive guard grabbed a loose air ball under the basket, dribbled wildly toward the three point line with Jaden Akins draped all over him. Nowell lost his footing as he tried to turn back to face the basket and while literally falling over, underhanded the ball towards the basket and banked in a three.
Tom Izzo may be getting blasted for calling some of Kansas State’s baskets lucky, but I do not know what else you call that. Call it a team of destiny, call it luck, call it just a guy making a ridiculous play. Regardless, Kansas State won because Nowell did that type of thing over and over again.
It was clear Kansas State had its “dude.” The question was where were Michigan State’s “dudes?” The simple answer: they played. They played exceptionally well. And in a season where many of them were counted out and dismissed to start the year, they almost pulled off a win in one of the best overall basketball games of the entire year.
Michigan State came into this season with the shadow of Cassius Winston still hanging over it. Despite this being the second year without the truly incredible Winston, MSU was criticized for not seemingly having a super star. A go to guy.
Early in the year, Izzo experimented with various players getting the end of game call. The experiment ran from Hall to Hoggard to Akins to Walker. It wasn’t just the fans that seemed concerned about that go-to-guy.
This game showed MSU had a few more options than we thought. AJ Hoggard took a massive step forward as a floor leader and tried to put the Spartans on his back. 25 points, ten of them coming on eleven free throws drawn through aggressive drives to the basket was almost enough.
Joey Hauser continued to be the rock this team survived on all year. His 18 points and 6 rebounds kept MSU afloat. In the first half, Hauser alone was the reason MSU was in the game. Hauser will unfortunately leave this game with a few regrets. Two wide open threes missed at the end of regulation will haunt the memory of this game. Even Hauser himself expressed regret he didn’t get a chance to take the last shot - unfortunately rarely touching the ball in overtime.
Hauser didn’t get the ball in overtime because the team rode the player who was destined to be its “dude” all season long: Tyson Walker.
Walker has been an oddly frustrating go-to-scorer in his two years at MSU. Frustrating because he often chose NOT to shoot. It’s rare in this day and age to find a true scoring threat who is humble enough to pass the ball off. It took some time this year, but playing consistently at the two guard - rather than platooning at the point guard - seemed to finally push Walker to be the consistent offensive threat he needed to be. This lifted Michigan State in the last third of the season, and almost lifted them to victory in this game.
Walker earned the right to have the ball in his hands in overtime. Two missed jumpers in the lane could arguably have been better spent driving to the basket (one of his few remaining bad habits that drives me nuts). Still, you cannot fault a guy who made the Spartans a completely different, and more dangerous, squad through his on court aggressiveness.
These three players were MSU’s dudes. They were backed up by strong all around performances from Malik Hall and Jaden Akins. Hall’s 8 rebounds are an under scrutinized element to MSU’s competitive performance against Kansas State. The one knock on Akins might be a coaching decision. Down the stretch, Akins was the one guy who seemed capable of slowing Nowell. It’s unfortunate he didn’t play the whole game glued to him. Though, Kansas State switches so much, perhaps it just wasn’t possible.
The end result was a loss. The loss was fueled by one dude truly having a magnificent performance for the other team. Kansas State’s “dude” Makquis Nowell. Spartan fans should be appreciative of their own dudes - who countered many doubters this season with a memorable NCAA tournament run, and an all time classic final loss. Even in the loss, they deserve to be remembered well.
POINT 2: After Being a Disaster All Year, The Small Ball Lineup Almost Saved the Season
On paper Michigan State’s five best players are: AJ Hoggard, Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser. This has never been in doubt. It was clear the weak spot on the lineup was the center position. Since the start of the year, commentators - and even Coach Izzo - have marveled at the potential for a small ball lineup featuring these five. The problem was for most of the season this lineup was a disaster. Truly.
Before almost winning this game against Kansas Sate, the small ball lineup statistically failed almost every time it was deployed this year. There are many potential explanations (read: excuses) for this.
Injuries: The offseason injury to Jaden Akins meant these five didn’t play together much heading into the season. Finally Akins was back, and Malik Hall spent large chunks of the season injured. The small ball lineup got rolled out really after Malik Hall returned the second time. This meant it featured a Jaden Akins finding himself (and his most potent role) late in the season and a significantly diminished Malik Hall.
Hauser’s Limitations at the Five: It was no secret in the 2021-2022 season that Joey Hauser felt like his extended time guarding opposing centers contributed to an overall down year for him. Hasuser has defensive limitations. And at times those limitations bleed into his offensive game, lowering his overall impact significantly. The initial vision for the small ball lineup pushed Hauser back into the five spot. Hauser looked uncomfortable, and clearly Izzo didn’t love it. Perhaps this limitation meant the small ball lineup was always fools gold. Late in the season, MSU found some limited success with Hall playing at the five spot - a creative approach that leapfrogged the Hauser problem. Again though, Hall was limited by injury, making this revamped approach extremely limited in playing time till the Kansas State game.
Izzo’s Rotations: Izzo loves to mix up his rotations. Sometimes this is celebrated, other times it is a mark of scorn against him. So it always seemed strange how quickly he would abandon the small ball lineup. Even late in the season there were games where he would roll it out for less than 90 seconds and move away from it without any clear indication of success or failure. He’s a Hall of Famer so the previous two points (or the next one) may be the good reasons he didn’t trust this lineup. Still, it meant this lineup that almost saved the season rarely played together for extended periods before the last game of the season.
The Big Ten’s Obsessions with Behemoth Big Men: The Big Ten this year simply may not have been friendly to anyone really playing small ball lineups. Yes, some teams had limited success with smaller lineups - Northwestern being the prime example - but overall the Big Ten’s top teams rode some sort of large, capable center. Michigan State didn’t have any opponents where the small ball lineup really countered the other team without playing right into the opponent’s strength. The Spartans may simply not have had an opponent suited to build confidence in the small ball lineup.
Kansas State didn’t play through an enormous center. They relied on ball movement and insane passing from Nowell. The small ball lineup was actually the best defensive approach against Kansas State. A far, far cry from every other game where MSU tried to use the small ball lineup to outscore the opponent, and deal with the defensive limitations.
Matchup specific or not, Michigan State found something in the small ball lineup. It may not have worked in other games, but it meant the Spartans remained flexible enough late in the year to almost win a massive game using an approach that had played no significant role earlier in the season.
Combine this with MSU winning round 1 and 2 games without their three pointers falling, and you have a Spartan squad that showed remarkable adaptability in the NCAA tournament. The small ball lineup was almost a legendary adaptation. Unfortunately, it came up just short.
POINT 3: Michigan State’s Vaunted Defense Is the Scapegoat
This article has largely been positive even in the face of a crushing loss. Michigan State played inspired throughout the game. The players were gritty. The effort was there from start to finish. Unfortunately, the execution was simply not in a key area: defense.
Markquis Nowell may be a player you cannot truly plan for if you have not seen him in person. Kansas State may be one of those rare teams that struggles in conference play (though they were pretty darn good this year), because opponents get two shots at them. Familiarity giving your team some understanding of how to counter. Michigan State had no familiarity with Nowell, and they looked utterly lost trying to defend him and his fellow Wildcats.
After two games where Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper combined to unexpectedly provide a major lift at the center position, the two were clearly outmatched in the Kansas State game. Kansas State played a type of whirling offense that left both continually behind the ball and chasing opposing players. When Cooper and Sissoko weren’t letting opponents slip and back cut their way to the basket with no resistance, they were getting caught on switches, closing out late on three pointers. The two were not alone in closing out late on those threes.
MSU’s inability to stay in front of players and track shooters led to players like Ismael Massoud going nuts from three. Massoud’s 15 points on 4 of 6 three point shooting was ten points above his per game average. The Spartans’ Achilles heel in big games this year has been letting an opposing team’s third or fourth scorer go nuts (see loss to Illinois, first loss to Purdue, etc). It may simply be the price you pay when you over-correct to focus on the top scorers, but it continued a trend while also allowing Kansas State’s players to score at will.
Tom Izzo is in the Hall of Fame largely for his defense, and in a rare misstep came into this game with a team that could not execute a defensive game plan.
Second half adjustments including isolating Jaden Akins on Nowell and going to the small ball lineup (see above point) almost worked. They also remind everyone why Izzo is in the Hall of Fame.
It’s unfortunate those weren’t the game plan coming in - or that the players couldn’t execute whatever the game plan was at the start.
Michigan State played with grit and fight. They found scoring on a night where their shooting didn’t look lights out. Arguably, they lost this game because of Joey Hauser missing two wide open three pointers in the closing four minutes, Malik Hall missing key free throws down the stretch, and Walker uncharacteristically missing two jumpers in the lane in overtime.
Those offensive shortcomings wouldn’t have mattered as much, if the Spartans defense had slowed Kansas State at all.