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Michigan State Loses to Illinois: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

Illinois and Michigan State went down to the buzzer. Despite the loss fo the Spartans, their performance had some positives.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State traveled to Champagne, Illinois to take on a top ten team and lost. The fighting Illini won 71-68 in a game that seesawed back and forth in the final ten minutes. A loss is devastating to the Spartans as it drops them to 9-7 overall and truly unsightly 1-4 in the Big Ten.

Despite the outcome, the Spartans had some positive aspects to their hard fought loss.

Details of the Curve for this Game: Illinois is ranked number ten in the country and plays like it. They may not have the full scoring punch without Terrence Shannon Jr, but this team defends and attacks on offense relentlessly. Illinois has looked like one of the better teams MSU has faced this season - and that is saying something considering the quality of the Spartans schedule. MSU gets credit in this game if they can hold Illinois’ offense in check and if it can find some offense.

Offense:

The early offense for the Spartans was defined by futility. Every single chronic problem for the Spartans this year showed up in the first four minutes. Mady Sissoko got a good look on the first possession and was blocked. Jaden Akins got a wide open look for three in transition and bricked it. Malik Hall had two looks at a basket. He bricked one and got blocked then drew a foul on the second. If players cannot hit shots that are open, the offensive design simply does not matter.

The offense started scoring and yet it still looked hard. The half court offense for the Spartans made everything look hard. Everyone looked hesitant going to the basket as they seemed terrified of Hawkins or Rodgers blocking shots. On the three point line, Illinois closed out every opportunity. There were also a few opportunities for Tre Holloman to let fly from deep and he passed up those opportunities. When Hall and Holloman were on the floor together, it felt like that hesitance was contagious.

Somehow, the Spartans were down only 28-26 with 5:10 left and a timeout called by Illinois. It’s a credit to the ability of the team as a whole to score, as six guys had a bucket. It was also a credit to Tyson Walker’s ability to carry a team with 9 points early.

After a rare first half timeout by Tom Izzo calmed a 7-0 run by Illinois, Michigan State found some offensive rhythm. Using aggressive play in the paint, the Spartans answered with an 8-0 run to close within one point. The half ended down three after a foul call on Tyson Walker, but the offense found something there. The only concerning piece was how many times the Spartans were missing at the rim. If they’d had a better shooting percentage at the basket, the Spartans would have been leading at half.

The second half MSU started hitting those shots at the rim. The backcourt of Akins, Walker and Hoggard started finding offense and they were helped by Malik Hall. The foursome fueled a 20-5 run stretching back to the end of the first half. That run put the Spartans up 46-40.

The Spartans offense cooled as Jaden Akins and Tyson Walker sat. Coen Carr at the three really limits Michigan State. Add in Tre Holloman forgetting he has been shooting incredibly well and the Spartans struggled to find offense. It took AJ Hoggard playing hero ball to find any buckets in the face of a big Illinois run.

When Akins and Walker returned, Hoggard went to the bench for a needed rest. The team lost a bit of rhythm. Holloman has been solid running the point but the offense in the half court with him at the top didn’t find ways to get players open. Hall didn’t have any well placed feeds and Akins was left launching off balance shots from deep.

Hoggard’s return to the floor resulted in a turn around on offense. The backcourt for MSU started driving and getting buckets the hard way at the rim. The approach drew them within three with just under three minutes left. A missed Akins three felt like a turning point.

Some tough defense and gritty offense kept the game going for the Spartans. Two big free throws by AJ Hoggard pulled the Spartans within 1 with under two minutes left. An incredibly strong post move by Malik Hall a possession later kept the Spartans within 1 point with only 1-minute left.

When the game went to fouling to extend, the offense simply could not deliver. This was a game lost by inches. Tyson Walker being forced to launch an isolation three from the top of the key to tie it late looked like desperation. Watching AJ Hoggard launch a disorganized three in the final five seconds that also could have tied it simply felt predictable.

It was a solid effort across the board for the Spartans but simply not enough. Four players in double figures is not always enough. The most glaring offensive weakness was the abysmal three point shooting. The team shot 26% from three. Walker alone was 1 for 7. Just a few of those falling would have been the difference in the game.

Offense Grade: B+

Defense:

Michigan State came out with a defensive alignment (see coaching section) that got exploited. Jaden Akins took Illinois nominal center Coleman Hawkins and the Spartans’ centers, Sissoko and Cooper guarded their small forward (sometimes referred to as a guard) 6’6” Ty Rodgers. Rodgers does not shoot from outside, instead he lit up both centers with athletic drives to the basket. It was enough to put Illinois out to an 8 to 2 lead at the first media timeout.

The Spartans non-traditional lineup choices burned them for the first 10 minutes of the game. Sissoko got burned for a third basket by Rodgers while Hall gave up a long three from Hawkins. The later was particularly disappointing as Hawkins got the shot off because Hall went under a screen and gave him endless space to get the shot off. Hall is too good, and too experienced, to do that (yes, we’ve heard that before).

Ty Rodgers continued to make MSU pay for their game plan, totalling 12 points in the first 14-minutes of the game.

The defense once again let a golden opportunity slip. The offense closed the game to a 28-26 Illinois lead, and then let Illinois score 7 straight. The offense missed a few times (and there was a missed foul by Coleman Hawkins on a “steal”), but the defense blew assignments, closed out late and got outrebounded.

To close out the half, Michigan State found way to push Illinois away from the basket. The Illini started heaving shots from way outside the three point line and missing. It allowed MSU to get back into the game by half. This was part of the Illini shooting closer to under 30% for the final 8-minutes of the half, which balanced out a blistering opening shooting over 53%.

The second half started with physicality from Malik Hall. He had defensive pressure, rebounding and even some offensive spark. Combined with solid post stands from both Sissoko and Jaden Akins (yes, you read that right), and MSU made it very difficult for the Illini to start the half.

The defense helped spark the big run to open the half, it also played a role in letting Illinois tie it up. With Walker and Akins on the sideline, Illinois was able to exploit mismatches. Coen Carr simply does not have enough defensive discipline to really handle a long stretch defensively against an opponent like this. He was not to blame alone, but it was part of the problem as Illinois retook the lead mid way through the second half.

For the trouble Ty Rodgers gave the Spartans big men, as the game progressed Jaden Akins did a really sound job on Coleman Hawkins. His value was most obvious when he was off the court. Hawkins exploited his absence for a mini personal five point run late in the second half.

Down the stretch, MSU found ways to create stops. It was simply not enough. Still it was a solid defensive effort on paper.

The Spartans held Illinois well below its season average for scoring. In the second half particularly, they found answers to the mismatches the Illini were creating in the first half. Statistically, they held Illinois to only 33% from three - a factor that would have helped if MSU had shot better than 26%. The effort was not enough, and should have been better in thef first half particularly.

Defense Grade: B

Transition:

Transition simply did not work in the first half. Illinois was credited with four points on the fastbreak which showed MSU struggled to get back on defense a few times. The Spartans were credited with zero fast break points in the first half. That is a bit misleading as there was clearly some early offense that felt more like transition than half court offense. Still, the Spartans were struggling to get out in front of Illinois. The Fighting Illini have experienced players that know how to frustrate MSU’s preferred style of play.

The Spartans found a few more opportunities for transition baskets in the second half and it kept them in the game. Every little bit helped as Tre Holloman found a few opportunities to feed players in transition. A highlight reel moment featured Holloman throwing it up for a sprinting Coen Carr who threw it down hard. A bit later in the half Holloman found Walker cutting to the basket and fed him for a great drive to the basket and a beautiful layup in traffic.

When the Spartans offense was hitting shots at the rim and the defense was making stops in the half court, transition defense really suffered. AJ Hoggard was the worst offender - but not the only one - looking tired and simply not getting back in transition. It allowed Illinois to get some much needed points and maintain a slim lead.

The transition was where this game was lost. The half court offense and defense for both teams was so well matched that the small margin Illinois gained in transition was enough to hold on for the win. Illinois’ length and discipline held the Spartans in check in transition. They need to find ways to overcome that to win big games like this.

Transition Grade: D

Coaching:

Illinois’s nominal center, Coleman Hawkins, clearly had Michigan State’s coaching staff worried coming into this game. Hawkins is a tall, physical player who hits from outside. To counter that, MSU took a page out of Purdue’s book and put Jaden Akins on him defensively. Akins gives up a huge amount of height, but can track Hawkins on the three point line. It required Mady Sissoko to take on a small Forward, Ty Rodgers, who largely cannot shoot from outside. The problem was Rodgers used his speed to score on both Sissoko and Cooper early.

The approach to Hawkins defined MSU’s approach early on. Even when Akins sat, Hall moved onto Hawkins and still gave up substantial height. The only benefit to Hall being put on Hawkins was it brought out the chippy side of the fifth year senior for MSU. Sometimes that actually helps the Spartans.

This matchup decision overshadowed a sense that MSU was still rotating players early looking for something. By the 12 minute media timeout, MSU had played 8 players, including Jaxon Kohler - the third center, and fourth center rotation (Sissoko had two stints) of the young game for the Spartans. It left the game feeling choppy for the Spartans.

One notable rotation adjustment for the Spartans was Coen Carr. The athletic freshman rotated in at the four spot. At least for one game, the early use of disappointing freshman Xavier Booker as Malik Hall’s primary backup was over. Carr immediately rewarded Izzo’s faith by grabbing an offensive rebound and blocking a transition layup.

Despite a quick rotation trigger, the Spartans were still able to close within two late in the first half. From there, Illinois went on a 7-0 run. Izzo actually called a first half timeout. It could have been to complain about a missed call, but regardless it served to stop some of the Illinois momentum. Izzo has long been criticized for not doing that, so it was refreshing to see that once.

Coming out of the timeout, the Spartans clawed their way back into the game. An 8-0 run brought the Spartans within one point before Tyson Walker picked up his second foul. Izzo made some choices with his defensive lineup but he also pushed the right buttons to generate enough offense to keep up.

The second half initially saw the Spartans come out inspired then slow substantially. The slow down corresponded with Tyson Walker getting whip kicked (and called for the foul somehow) and having to sit. Michigan State simply didn’t have an answer.

When Illinois pushed the lead out to 59 to 52 at the 8 minute timeout in the second half Izzo took an interesting approach, he called Mady Sissoko’s number. It’s becoming a move Izzo likes in these situations, when the team is struggling he starts treating Sissoko like an offensive option. It worked, and gave the Spartans a bit more confidence.

Izzo found ways to spark his veterans in this game. After they collectively struggled against Northwestern, this game they carried the offense and the defense. Even Mady Sissoko had a good game, pulling down 9 defensive rebounds (10 total).

Michigan State at its best would have found this game difficult. Illinois is simply that good this year. Izzo deployed creative matchups, rotated as much as he could to keep his backcourt fresh, and pushed the right buttons to keep the game close. If the shooting had been just slightly better for the Spartans the outcome would have been different.

Coaching: A

Overall:

Michigan State had runs in this game where they played fantastic basketball. They also had some runs where they got outplayed. To their credit, they had no extended collapse. The closest the Spartans got to a collapse was stopped short by a timely (and rare) first half timeout from Tom Izzo.

The offense had terrible three point shooting, but found success driving to the rim over and over again. AJ Hoggard found another gear tonight and made the offense tick. Malik Hall snapped out of his funk and contributed 14 points and 7 rebounds, 4 of those offensive. The problem was the outside shooting. Four guys in double figures is a solid effort. They could have had at least two guys over 20-points if they were shooting event decently from three.

Defensively the Spartans struggled. While Jaden Akins had a strong effort guarding the much taller Coleman Hawkins, the team as a whole was too often chasing. Still, they held Illinois well below their scoring average.

The outcome was a loss. Losses should be graded harder. But the Spartans played hard, deployed a solid game plan, and were a few three pointers away from a road win against a top ten team. That is a good effort.

Overall: B+

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?