Michigan State showed a lot of who they are this year in a big road loss to Wisconsin. The 81-66 loss showed a Spartan team that clearly does not belong in the top tier of the Big Ten. MSU may scrape and fight its way to the NCAA Tournament this year, and even finish towards the top third of the conference in a parity filled year. The two losses to Wisconsin though have been so resounding, as to solidify this team as not elite.
Wisconsin is an excellent team this year, and looks built to potentially make some noise late in the year. The Spartans do not measure up in any facet of the game this year. And with that framing, here are the grades for the Spartans in this loss.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Wisconsin is in first place in the Big Ten. After years of offensive efficiency and good defense, this year’s Badgers squad actually seems to have offensive firepower. The game in East Lansing between these two teams featured a lethargic Spartans squad getting beat soundly. For the moment, Wisconsin and Purdue look like the top tier of the Big Ten so the grades reflect playing against a top team.
The Spartan offense started with zero rhythm. The bigs for Wisconsin clearly had everyone out of sorts. There were multiple pull up jumpers that clanged off the rim as Spartan players chose not to drive to the basket. Michigan State has found recent dominance/success in the paint by utilizing power drives to the basket. That was completely absent in the early going in this game, and so too was any offensive punch.
Early rotating deep into the lineup also contributed to the lack of rhythm. Fortunately for the Spartans, when they had to go to Jaxon Kohler earlier than most likely expected it helped.
Kohler had an early basket off of a dump off from Jaden Akins. His individually offensive scoring was not nearly as important as his immediate impact on the balance of the floor. Wisconsin defenders chose to actually respect a Michigan State center and it opened up the lane for drives and scoring.
A mini spurt of back to back threes coming out of the 12-minute timeout helped the Spartans pull within three.
Down the stretch of the first half, MSU found better shooting but could not keep up with Wisconsin. But even MSU shooting near 50% for most of the first half simply was not enough firepower to make up for the defensive lapses.
The game got a bit further out of reach as MSU went cold late in the first half. The Badgers were physical and arguably getting away with a lot of contact against MSU’s guards - particularly Tyson Walker. As Malik Hall, AJ Hoggard and Tre Holloman all tallied two fouls, it put too much of MSU’s offensive production on the bench for too long. The scoring simply dried up and allowed Wisconsin to end the half up 9.
The Spartans were finally able to get their starters back on the court to start the second half, and Izzo called a few gems. Some offense called for Malik Hall helped get the team going, and a nice set piece on an inbound resulted in a resounding uncontested dunk by the fifth year senior.
With Tyson Walker struggling with the physicality (and on the bench with a bloody nose), the plays started to be called for Jaden Akins. He had nine points early, and they needed him to step up even more. Akins created some offense but also missed a few wide open shots that would have made a huge difference. In the end, he had one point in the second half.
Overall, the Spartans were cold for most of the second half. They were shooting 30% for the first 14-minutes of the second half. Considering there were more than a few dunks, it meant the Spartans jump shooting was simply awful in the second half.
The final spark of life for the Spartans offense came from AJ Hoggard. A personal 8 point run, closed the lead to 12-points with under five minutes left. From there it still felt like the Spartans had a chance to make it close late. They did not.
On one truly unfortunate sequence, a Walker three was nullified by a moving screen call against Carson Cooper. The next play Wisconsin immediately drilled a three (over an out of position Xavier Booker). It was a six point swing that felt like it closed the door on the game.
Even a Xavier Booker three that brought it back to a 12-point lead, felt like the official start of garbage time.
The offense wasn’t atrocious in this game. It created 66 points with Walker being mostly taken out of the offensive flow and the entire team struggling to hit open shots when it mattered. Still, it was not nearly enough to keep pace with a Wisconsin team that lit up the defense consistently.
Offensive Grade: C
An early 8-1 scoring run allowed Wisconsin to get out to an early 10-3 lead. Even after MSU found back to back offensive baskets, the Spartans continued to let Wisconsin find baskets. AJ Storr looked unstoppable and the deep shots for Wisconsin were falling (3 for 5 in first ten minutes). Down low, Jaxon Kohler (on the court because of early fouls to both Sissoko and Cooper) got exposed by the bigger, more talented Wisconsin front court. All in all, the first ten minutes made the Spartans look like a team overmatched at literally every spot on the floor.
Michigan State continued to get outmuscled and outmaneuvered throughout the first half. The guards could not stop Wisconsin shooters. The Badgers offense played inside out and continuously found ways to be ahead of Spartan defenders.
Jaxon Kohler played decently at the four spot when Malik Hall was forced to go to the bench early with two fouls, but struggled defensively. His lack of game experience this year showed up time and again as he struggled in one on one post situations and didn’t rotate well enough on switches, allowing the Badgers to get open looks.
The defensive effort by the Spartans in the first half was the worst of the season. The Badgers 43 points were the most given up by Michigan State this year in a first half. Foul trouble clearly limited MSU’s defensive options. Often it looked like the Spartans were fouling because they were late to defend. Wisconsin simply had too many offensive options for the Spartans defense in the first half.
The second half saw mostly more of the same. Despite the Spartans defense looking tighter - particularly with Malik Hall on the floor - Wisconsin kept pouring in points. On top of out muscling the Spartans, the Badgers were getting all the home court bounces. Watching a wild drive that drew a foul, fall into the hoop after rolling off the top of the backboard felt demoralizing.
The Badgers were simply too much for the Spartans defense to handle.
Late in the second half, the Spartans started to finally slow the Badgers. An 11-5 run made the game feel semi competitive with three minutes left. But the defense could not stop clutch shots and rebounds by Wisconsin.
The effort the Spartans put out in this game on defense wasn’t even in the range of acceptable. The team let AJ Storr run all over them. His 28 points actually covered up for a broader off night for the Wisconsin offense. The problem was it didn’t look like an off night for the offense. Michigan State’s tough defense got outmuscled, out hustled and flat out beaten too many times. Each time they needed a big stop, Wisconsin found a way to hit a big long three or dump the ball to the post and exploit MSU there. This was a collectively bad defensive performance with rare bright spots (Malik Hall played some good defense).
Defensive Grade: D
Like everything else in the Spartans arsenal, transition was essentially absent for most fo the first ten minutes. When it finally showed up coming out of the 12-minute timeout (held about a minute late), it helped fuel a spurt that closed the gap to three points.
The biggest problem for the Spartans in getting transition going was Wisconsin’s early hot shooting and dominance in rebounding. The Spartans were simply not able to create many opportunities. Even coming off made shots, the Spartans often looked slow to inbound and create early pressure on Wisconsin. It was a clear missed opportunity, as the few times they truly committed to pushing the ball it mostly worked.
When fouls removed AJ Hoggard and Malik Hall from the floor in the first half, the Spartans tempo slowed to a grind. There was simply no push to be found from the remaining players.
To start the second half Wisconsin showed a big weapon they used to take away MSU’s transition offense: physicality. Getting away with more than a little contact, three Wisconsin defenders were able to collapse and outmuscle AJ Hoggard, taking away a layup in transition.
The second half transition felt even less impactful on this game. Fouls took away the up tempo style in the first half. In the second half it was all the Badgers. The Spartans will not win against any quality opponents with a transition performance like this.
Transition Grade: D-
The Spartans team came out looking discombobulated. After excelling driving to the basket in recent weeks, the early offense saw Malik Hall, AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker all have driving lanes that they stepped back from for long jumpers. Notably all missed. That was so out of character it felt like a coaching decision.
The first major in game decision by Tom Izzo was potentially forced by fouls. Three fouls on MSU led to a lineup with Holloman, Cooper and Sissoko on the floor before the 17:30 mark. The two big man lineup is something MSU has tried incredibly sparingly this year. It also didn’t look like something they had practiced coming into the game. As an example, on the first inbound pass after a made Wisconsin basket, Cooper forgot he was playing the four spot and sprinted down the court instead of inbounding the ball (in Izzo’s offense, the 4-man almost always inbounds the ball after a basket).
This lineup looked slow and confused. A fitting description of the entire Michigan State effort before the first media timeout. That felt like a coaching failure.
The Spartans found some grit and fight about midway through the first half. Particularly coming out of the 12-minute media timeout, the Spartans were able to get their starters back on the floor together and start pushing the ball. It worked. The tempo increase improved MSU defense (slightly) and created actual scoring opportunities.
Izzo then went back to the two big man lineup after Malik Hall picked up two early fouls. Wisconsin was owning the boards and exploiting Jaxon Kohler’s defense at the five. The second go round on this lineup looked a bit better but still not great. Carson Cooper may simply not have the talent to play the four spot at this point, and at least two possessions ended in empty trips due to Cooper trying and failing to convert a good offensive move.
Quickly, Izzo switched to Kohler at the four spot with both Sissoko and Cooper at the five. This looked better offensively, but still not great defensively.
Izzo has not had a game this year where he has had to navigate the type of foul trouble the Spartans faced in the first half. Still, this team is deep on the perimeter and should be resilient in these types of situations. Instead, the Spartans got outplayed in every facet of the game in the first half.
The second half saw the Spartans come out with fight. A rested Malik Hall gave the Spartans some tenacity and edge on both offense and defense. Izzo deployed some good sets to get the ball moving and create scoring options for Jaden Akins (some worked, some did not). That was good coaching.
The problem was the Badgers simply looked better. Over and over again, the Badger players were stronger, faster and more talented. The Spartans did not deploy a scheme that was able to take away anything the Badgers wanted to do on offense. That is in part coaching, that is also an indictment of the talent on this year’s squad that is simply not up to some challenges. Talent is in Izzo’s responsibility as well, so that is also a mark against him.
Coaching Grade: C+
Michigan State ran into a better team on their home court. That is what this game was. They played hard, they showed fight late and they lost.
They shot decently from three (43%) but did not take enough of them. They settled for jump shots when they should have been driving the lane. They allowed Wisconsin’s physical play to throw them off their game and limit their stars (particularly Tyson Walker).
Defensively, despite limiting the offensive production of some key players for the Badgers they looked flat out beaten by the eye test. The Spartans had no answer for AJ Storr.
Storr perhaps is the best pivot point to mention coaching as an overall part of the problem. Storr is a transfer that has changed Wisconsin’s season. MSU clearly has a transfer that changed their team in Tyson Walker. The concern is Walker joined the team three years ago. The Spartans have not brought in a difference maker like that since Walker - either through the transfer portal or through high school recruiting. Yes, it’s too early to judge the long term impact of the freshman (or even Sophomores) but they did not impact this game.
Wisconsin finding that difference maker in the portal is why they are where they are this year. It is also a big reason why the Spartans looked beaten in all three phases of the game.
Overall Grade: C-