Michigan State lost to Illinois on the road 71-68. The game drops the Spartans to 1-4 in the Big Ten. Despite the loss, the effort was substantially better than in some of the previous losses. The game as a whole leaves a lot of open questions to consider.
Here is my three point shot on the game:
POINT 1: There is no such thing as a good loss, while this is close it’s not enough
This is the type of game where the outcome doesn’t match the effort. A three point loss on the road against a high quality opponent is not a disaster. This is the type of loss that happens in every Big Ten season. The problem is it comes after MSU already has bad losses. Michigan State is now 1 and 4 in the Big Ten. That is a disastrous start to conference play.
Michigan State’s Big Ten opponents look like the class of the league. Northwestern and Nebraska have both beaten a legitimately good Purdue team. Wisconsin has found an offensive gear that could put them on a final four path. Illinois, despite losing their top scorer, looks like a legitimate threat to contend for the top of the league this year.
Perhaps its bad luck that Michigan State has gotten these four programs to start the conference play. The problem is, if its bad luck it also means MSU is at best the number five program in the conference. Considering the Spartans struggles with Purdue, it would most likely mean MSU is at best the sixth best team in the conference. That’s a pedestrian outcome for a team filled with veterans and pre-season hopes of a national championship.
While the record is disastrous, this loss is not in isolation. Michigan State played well on the road, got quality performances from its starting five and looked competitive throughout. This type of performance will win them some games down the road. The concern is the road is getting shorter and shorter for the Spartans to build a compelling resume.
The Spartans are running out of time to get their record straightened out - even this early in January.
POINT 2: The Spartans backcourt is starting to look like what we expected - even on an off shooting night
The Spartans shot 26% from three point range. That stat lost them this game. Despite this, Tyson Walker tallied 17 points, AJ Hoggard 16 and Jaden Akins 13. Akins had that production while defending Coleman Hawkins. For the record, Akins gives up at minimum 6 inches to Hawkins yet found ways to harass him most of the night.
This trio was expected to guide the Spartans to big things this year. So far they have been inconsistent as a group. Hoggard started the season extremely poorly and Akins has only started to become an offensive factor recently. The signs are there the three of them are figuring it out.
Tyson Walker finds ways to score, even if he goes 1-7 from three point. That is as reliable as it gets for the Spartans.
AJ Hoggard is driving the offense. Despite only having three assists, the team moved differently with him in control. The stretches he was not on the floor tonight, the scoring ground to a halt. Hoggard looks fearless driving to the basket, just like he did late last year.
Jaden Akins is settling into his role. He started the year trying to be a driving ball handler. It was clear he believed getting to the NBA required him to look like a point guard. That approach simply did not work.
Since Akins has settled back into spot up threes and crashing the boards for put backs, the Spartans as a whole have gotten better. In rare moments Akins shows he might still have another gear. His handle has improved this year, and against Illinois he showed a few flashes of being able to create off the bounce. Even if that aspect of his game remains elusive this year, he is showing how much he changes Michigan State’s offense when sticking to the role he knows he can be successful in.
The record (at least in the Big Ten) may not show the improvement yet for the backcourt, but it is there. It will make a difference as MSU claws its way out of the cellar of the Big Ten.
POINT 3: Tre Holloman needs to shoot - it’s that simple
Tre Holloman struggled tonight. In terms of positives, the sophomore combo guard played some good defense and dished out three assists - matching AJ Hoggard and Malik Hall for team lead. In transition, Holloman pushed the ball and found some of the only success the Spartans had in that phase of the game, feeding Coen Carr and Tyson Walker for buckets.
Still, he struggled. The reason? Shooting. It’s not that Holloman had a bad night shooting the ball it’s that he took one shot. A player that is a matter of weeks removed from going 5-5 from three point land took one shot.
At multiple times during the game, Holloman passed up good looks. Why is a good question.
One theory would be: His return to the backup point guard role (in the absence of Jeremy Fears, Jr.) could be partly to blame. Holloman played key minutes relieving AJ Hoggard. That may mean his focus is on game management and distribution rather than scoring. But for all but six of his 22-minutes, AJ Hoggard was on the floor with Holloman. This should have freed him to shoot. It didn’t.
Another reason could be the classic: Young players sometimes shrink on the road. If that’s the case here, Michigan State needs Holloman to grow up. He is a Sophomore. He played in big games last year and accomplished the freshman goals of “don’t screw it up.” In his second year, Holloman should be doing more.
It was not too long ago I was writing that Holloman could be on a conference sixth man of the year type trajectory. If he is only going to take one shot a game, that will clearly not happen.
Michigan State needs more from its bench in every game. Tre Holloman is the best option for consistent offense. He needs to act like it and start taking the shots to try and contribute.