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MSU Falls To 1-4 In Conference Play: To Panic Or Not To Panic?

What will it take to get this season back on track?

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

After suffering a pair of losses this past week in the Land of Lincoln, Michigan State is now sitting in the cellar of the Big Ten standings at 1-4. To remind you all, that is already the number of conference losses that BBD and I predicted for the whole season and one more than Andy prophesized. So clearly things are not going according to plan. The discussion now becomes what the Spartans can still accomplish this season. Will they remain near the bottom of the conference? Can they improve to around .500 and get a single bye in the BTT? Or can they really get things back on track and climb near the top of the table to earn that double-bye again?

To answer that question, we need to look a little deeper at what is ailing this squad and consider if those are issues that can be resolved. Instead of my usual 3 Likes & 3 Dislikes that I do after each game, I am going to present my 3 Dislikes that cover the entire season up to this point. This is not to say that there have only been 3 things I dislike; certainly there have been more. Rather, these three items are what I believe have been the biggest contributors to the disappointing record thus far. I am going to stay away from obvious things like Mady’s hands or missing all those 3s at the beginning of the season. Instead, I am going to examine more persistent and team-wide issues.

1. Lack of cohesion in the starting lineup. There is certainly talent in MSU’s starting five, and obviously most of it is concentrated in the backcourt. The issue with the lineup of Hoggard, Walker, Akins, Hall, and Sissoko is that there is no way to space the floor to maximize the strengths of each player. The end result of this fact is that we have a whole that is LESSER than the sum of its parts.

Starting from the inside and moving out, Mady Sissoko (and also his backup Carson Cooper) has two things he can do effectively on the offensive end. The first is to take a pass within two feet of the rim and stuff it home. The second is to come up to the top of the key and set a screen for Hoggard, or in some cases Walker. His post moves are not polished enough for him to become a consistent threat when he has to put the ball on the floor. And if he comes out to set the screen, defenders know he isn’t going to kick out for a shot after he releases the screen. He only becomes a target to shoot again once he heads back down into the low post. So there is only a small portion of the court where the defense needs to put a body on him. The further out from the rim he is, the more his defender can stray away and offer help on another Spartan.

The problem becomes exacerbated by the fact that none of the other starters can slide down to the low post and get fed the ball when Sissoko goes to the top of the key to set screens. Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins are simply not big enough to try posting up. We have seen Malik Hall score in the paint, but just about every single time, he does it when Sissoko (or Cooper) is down there as well to help prevent the tallest defenders from sliding his way. And even then, Hall does not have the greatest vertical so he is still likely to have his shots disrupted. To clarify, I am not counting Hoggard and Walker’s ability to drive the lane and score as the same thing as low-post scoring that comes from Sissoko and Hall.

So if Sissoko comes up top and no one can occupy the low post (and AJ or Tyson do not blow by their defender to get to the hole), the Spartans are left with all five players on the perimeter, one of whom does not command defensive attention. This creates a scenario where there is a reduced chance of getting someone open for a shot on the perimeter. This situation is the prime reason the Spartans have gotten stuck in so many end-of-shot-clock scenarios and have had to have someone, usually Walker, bail them out with a desperate isolation play.

On the other hand, sending Sissoko and Hall both into the low post creates another problem for MSU. Neither of the primary front court players are particularly strong passers out of the low post. Defenses have keyed in on this and they will frequently throw a double team on them if they get the ball down low. Similarly, if both are in the same vicinity in the paint, the opposing team can crowd both of them with three defenders to keep the ball from getting kicked out to an open shooter. A high percentage of MSU’s turnovers this season have occurred in the low post, and it is because defenses know they can easily pressure a couple Spartans who are not great at passing out of pressure, one of whom is turnover-prone to begin with.

Ultimately, the lack of cohesion boils down to where to put Hall so that he can get the ball in a part of the floor where he is most effective but also that will not allow the opposition defense to easily get a helping defender to the ball. If he were a bigger person, going down low would be less problematic. And if he were a better three-point shooter, then stretching him outside the arc could be a more consistent option, allowing the Spartans to have four players beyond the three-point line as a threat to score from deep. But as is, wherever he goes either makes him less effective or makes someone else less effective.

I am not sure exactly how to fix the spacing issue with this version of the lineup. That is what Tom Izzo is for. But I can think of a few things that could solve this issue.

  • Replace Hall in the starting lineup. This is something that I had been predicting would eventually happen since the conclusion of MSU’s 2022-23 season. Either get a player who can be a threat from three-point land and be a true stretch-4 (i.e. Booker) or a player who can outjump opposing interior defenders to finish consistently (i.e. Carr). At this point, though, I do not see Izzo changing the starting five unless an injury occurs. Likelihood = 1/10
  • Hall starts shooting threes at his career average. Hall is a career 35.8% three-point shooter. In his third season, he shot a career best 42.6%. In his fifth and final season, he is currently shooting a career worst 26.7%; it is the first season he has shot below 30%. If he can shoot better from here on out, Izzo could spread the floor better. Likelihood = 3/10
  • We get the Penn State game version of Hall every game. We know Hall’s potential. When he is dialed in, he is a problem for opponents. He can score with low post moves and mid-range jumpers. But we also know we don’t get this with any amount of regularity. But we can dream. Likelihood = 5/10

The most likely solution for MSU’s starting lineup to reach its offensive potential is to get consistently strong performances from Malik Hall. Hopefully he gets more dialed in as he starts to see his collegiate career wind down. Maybe there is a sports psychologist working in the MSU athletic department that could help unleash “Malicious” on a full-time basis.

2. Allowing the opponent to get into their offensive set with ease. For years, Spartan fans have begged to see more full-court press from the Green & White, the case simply being a means to slow down opponents’ half-court sets and force them into their own late clock dilemmas after not getting any effective ball rotation in their possession. I am not going to go so far as to call for regular full-court press from this team. But I would like to see the player bringing the ball up for the other team to be met by his defender shortly after crossing half-court.

To use the most recent game as an example, the Illini frequently hustled the ball up court and the ball handler would proceed toward the basket until a Spartan defender did something about it. Often, this led to that ball carrier crossing the three-point line before being forced to reroute back up top. But by that point, the damage has been done. This caused a chain reaction that would leave the MSU defense in a disadvantage. While the primary defender did eventually cut off the Illini player, other Spartans would react to, taking a step or three in towards the lane and slumping off their own assignment. So when the ball handler stopped his forward momentum, he had his choice of targets to pass it to. That pass would lead to another as the ball swung around the perimeter with MSU now in full-blown catch-up mode. At some point, Illinois was either getting an open look from three or they were reversing the swing and then getting it inside. Bottom line, they could use this strategy to get the MSU defense off-balance and eventually find the open shot (or draw a foul).

This, of course, was not just an issue in the Illinois game. It has been a theme all season where MSU’s defense does not step up high enough and the opponent is left to attack the interior all too soon, setting off the above domino effect. Unlike issue #1, this problem really only has one method for correction; the MSU defense needs to be hustling back after each offensive possession - make or miss - and get into their set. And that set needs to include at least one defender waiting a few steps beyond the top of the key. Also, sure, let’s throw in the occasional full-court press as well just to give the enemy something else to think about, not just in late-game scenarios.

3. Free Throw Shooting. I will end with a more straight-forward item that does not require such an in-depth analysis. The Spartans are shooting 70% from the charity stripe this season. This is MSU’s worst rate since they shot 66.4% in the 2016-17 season. In every season since then, they have shot at least 72%, and in all but one season they have shot at 75% or better. Amongst this year’s rotation, five players are shooting it north of 70% (Holloman, Sissoko, Hoggard, Akins, and Walker) while five are below (Hall, Fears, Booker, Cooper, and Carr). However, when you look at it by free-throw attempts, three of the five Spartans who have taken the most FTs are below 70% (Hall, Cooper, Carr).

There is not much to say about this from the Illinois loss as MSU only got to the line seven times that whole game. A game earlier against Northwestern, the Spartans missed nearly one in three of their free throws, missing seven for the game. There were missed front-ends of 1&1s, and there were trips with the Spartan missing both. MSU is leaving way too many points out there this season.

Can Izzo and his staff fix these issues? Can MSU spend a few extra minutes at the end of practices working on free throws? Can MSU start stepping out further to start each defensive stand? Those two seem like simple yes answers, and hopefully we see improvements in those areas as this season trudges forward. But can we start to see an aggressive, confident, and effective style of play from Malik Hall every game? This is the hardest question to answer, and it is probably the issue that could have the greatest positive effect for MSU if it were a yes.

If that does not happen, if we have more games like the Northwestern outing with Hall putting up 100,000 in the box score (1 foul, zero rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, or points), then we can expect to see more ugly losses. My personal level of confidence in Hall right now is around 50%, or in other words, yes I think he could have another bad game or two this season. But I do think we will see the good version of him much more often than the bad version.

I think we can expect a few more losses, meaning MSU will go past the four losses I predicted. Maybe, especially if we can start with a little win streak in this next easy portion of the schedule, we can finish with only seven or eight Big Ten defeats. And that could be just good enough to get that double-bye. So, TOC Nation, I am not going into a panic yet. But if this doesn’t get turned around immediately, then yeah, I am fully prepared to start hyperventilating.