Michigan State used a strong second half to turn a tight game against their in-state rival into a blowout. Perhaps this is how it was meant to be. A big game against Michigan was tight for a half, and thrilling to watch MSU pull away in the second half.
The game featured AJ Hoggard scoring his 1,000th point and Coach Tom Izzo winning his 700th career game. These are huge milestones that seem even sweeter to be accomplished at home against a rival.
Despite the accolades, there were still some concerning parts to this big win for the Spartans.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Michigan is ranked last in the Big Ten. Their offense can score (averaging about 78 points a game) but their defense can’t stop anyone (giving up almost 79 points a game). The Wolverines were without their starting point guard Dug McDaniel, and expected not to be much of a challenge for the Spartans. Despite it being a rivalry game, the Spartans were the heavy favorite. The curve for this game is harder on the Spartans, as in most areas they should be dominant against Michigan.
The early Spartan offense had one player in mind: Jaden Akins. After an opening play call for Tyson Walker, Akins was the man with the ball in his hands for shots at the end of shot clocks and on the receiving end of heavy swings. It seemed to light a fuel under the Junior guard who has been inconsistent most of the season.
The offense then got sloppy. Beyond a sweet Tre Holloman three, MSU turned the ball over more than they actually took shots for a three minute stretch. Most egregious during this period was Carson Cooper who missed a short shot, missed at least two offensive rebounds and failed to dive to the basket on a pick and roll that ended up with AJ Hoggard’s pass landing in the first row of the stands.
The offense simply looked hard for the Spartans. To their credit, they responded by finding a level of grit that was refreshing. AJ Hoggard drove hard to the basket. Jaden Akins ran hard to get open and launch threes. And after being outrebounded 6 to 1 to open the game, a combination of Mady Sissoko and Xavier Booker combined for four rebounds on one play. Even though the final shot missed, the effort sparked the crowd and the team.
It was then time for Xavier Booker to flash his shooting. A sweet banked in three brought MSU back within three. It was the type of offense Booker had been envisioned providing, and it looked great to see it finally happen in competitive minutes.
The offense for MSU was saved by Jaden Akins. His 11 points were the only reliable option for most of the first half.
Even shooting 50% from the floor, points simply looked hard to generate. Tyson Walker particularly was driving hard and not converting at the rim. Too often those attempts were rebounded by Michigan and the possession would end.
The Spartans clawed back into the game by starting to rebound. After being outrebounded 13-5 for the first 15 minutes, they closed the first half with a 5 to 1 advantage. One of those was a key rebound punched out by Sissoko to AJ Hoggard on a missed free throw. Hoggard turned that rebound into an immediate drive that he scored and drew the foul. The three point play put the Spartans down only two, ending the half with Michigan leading 35-33.
The Spartans exploded early in the second half with a 12-0 run that put them up ten points. The run featured hot shooting (6 of 7), actual rebounding and transition offense. Lights out shooting from Jaden Akins may make the highlight reels but some great post moves from Malik Hall were equally important.
Watching Jaxon Kohler and Malik Hall trade possessions where they posted up and backed Michigan defenders down felt almost foreign. The Spartans simply have not had that option regularly - even from Hall. Both players came out seemingly committed to muscling their way to the basket and it was working. Even when Hall missed a basket, it left the lane open for AJ Hoggard to crash down for the rebound and put back. If this is a sign of changes coming to the Spartans offense, it would be incredibly important.
The dedication to post offense even opened up scoring opportunities for Carson Cooper. Malik Hall drew three defenders and found Cooper for an easy dunk.
When the Spartans slowed things down they went back to Jaden Akins. Akins had six made threes by the 7-minute remaining mark in the second half. A few minutes later he had his seventh.
The Spartans blew the lead out to 20-points on an all effort performance by Jaxon Kohler. He chased his own missed shot around the rim and got the ball to Tyson Walker. Walker launched a three and missed. Kohler tracked that miss down and converted a layup. It was the type of offensive rebounding effort MSU has been missing so much of this season.
MSU finished the game shooting 56% from the field and 43% from three (led by Jaden Akins’ 7 for 10 three point shooting). Despite being outrebounded for the game, they found stretches of dominance that fueled big runs. Particularly in the second half, MSU limited the turnovers and dug deep to find offense at all three levels. It was an impressive performance.
Offensive Grade: A
Michigan State’s guards came out harassing Michigan in the early possessions. Any concern the Spartans would come out flat against a team they should be beating was answered almost immediately. The problem was, even with that defensive intensity, Michigan found ways to convert looks at the basket. This is something the Wolverines have failed to do for much of the season, so it was definitely an early surprise.
Tre Holloman provided a lift off the bench. After hitting a wide open three, he absolutely shut down the Wolverine’s next possession almost single handedly. During the possession he switched onto whoever was handling the ball and repeatedly poked the ball out, eventually forcing a turnover. It was an impressive individual effort.
The early weakness for the Spartans was down low. Tarris Reed, Jr. simply bullied his way past Malik Hall for an all too easy layup. Generally, the offense for Michigan came too easily - even as the Spartans were forcing turnovers.
Xavier Booker and Coen Carr got extended run in the first half. Generally the freshman struggled on defense - but Michigan was shooting so well, the defensive effort and positioning may not have mattered. The one highlight on that end from the pair was Coen Carr’s monster block from the weak side. His leap into the rafters was the stuff of SportsCenter top 10.
The second half started with another long three by Michigan. It felt like the beginning of the more of the same before some fast hands and dedicated rebounding sparked a run by the Spartans.
Michigan in the second half was simply not hitting shots anywhere near the clip they were in the first half. Even with Jaelin Llewellyn still hitting threes, the rest of the team cooled off substantially.
Spartan defenders were also able to continue to force turnovers and harass shooters, but the biggest difference was the shooting percentage. Michigan shot 25% for the first 15-minutes of the second half after shooting almost 75% for the first 15-minutes of the first half.
Michigan State’s defense was able to hold Michigan in check in the second half. The first half was such an anomaly in terms of the Wolverines shooting percentage, that first half may not be as big an indictment against the Spartans as one might think. 11 steals on the game is a truly great performance. In the end, MSU held Michigan 15 points under their average and pulled away for the win.
Defensive Grade: B
The Spartans wanted to run early. They were forcing turnovers, harassing ball handlers and a few times pushing fast after a Michigan run. The problem - as has been at times this season - was the conversion. Michigan State simply failed to convert transition opportunities early. Even when Tyson Walker was able to draw a foul on a hard transition drive, he only hit one of two free throws.
Michigan State was credited with 1 fast break point in the first half. On the third possession of the second half they were able to get their first real transition offense. The AJ Hoggard drive was helped by an aggressive wall off by Mady Sissoko. Two possessions later, an effort by Sissoko popped the ball out for Tyson Walker who took the ball for an uncontested layup.
On the next play a Malik Hall steal resulted in a corner three by Akins. The huge shot put Michigan State up 44-39 and forced a Michigan timeout. Even if not technically a fast break point, it was the result of early offense from a great steal.
Michigan State built their lead in the second half off a 10-0 fast break point advantage. When Michgian turned to press to try and slow down MSU, the Spartans made them pay by turning that into a fast break layup (and 1 foul drawn) by Tyson Walker. When Michigan State is running this well, the press is a gamble few teams should take.
MSU ended the game with 18 fast break points and looked dominant in this phase. The first half limit in this area can be traced back to how well Michigan was shooting and their rebounding. In the second half, MSU was able to turn steals into points and create runs to blow the game open. This grade is more about the second half than the first half.
Transition Grade: B
Tom Izzo seems set on using Jaxon Kohler as the backup to Malik Hall. For the second game in a row Kohler played alongside Carson Cooper at the four spot. In this game it happened before the first media timeout. By that point, three players were off the bench for the Spartans in an obvious attempt to get deep into their roster early. Kohler gives the Spartans a theoretical offensive post presence, but it comes at the expense of established minutes for freshman Coen Carr and the fan desired minutes for deep bench freshman Xavier Booker.
Izzo rotated his lineup constantly. It rarely gave any one lineup much time to get consistent, but it clearly helped spark the team. After watching Akins, Walker and Hoggard dig deep to find some offense, Izzo went super young. Jaxon Kohler, Xavier Booker and Coen Carr got a brief stint together. The freshman both got beat on defense, but Booker helped balance it with a big three. You could hear the crowd love Booker getting real minutes. Izzo may have been thinking that with Michigan Shooting 75% it didn’t matter who was playing defense, so get Booker on the court for his potential offense.
The start of the second half saw MSU clearly find a new gear. A 12-0 run put the Spartans up ten. Izzo sparked that run by riding his starters well deeper into the half than he is accustomed to doing. While Cooper did come in out of the first media timeout, the rest of the bench wasn’t tapped till after the 14-minute mark. That was a clear shift in classic Izzo strategy.
After the Spartans built a 15-point lead it seemed like the team slowed down purposely. On two possessions in a row, Izzo clearly called for the transition to be slowed down and the clock to be burned. It left the Spartans launching (and missing) some long threes. Inserting Xavier Booker only led to yet another launched three that missed.
Izzo was able to get the team to keep their focus and keep pushing. He coached everyone from AJ Hoggard to Xavier Booker hard deep into the game, when the outcome was clear. Throughout the game, Izzo showed a willingness to experiment with lineups, and ride the hot hand(s) to give the team its best shot to win. The team had the grit to withstand a ridiculous shooting start for the Wolverines and find ways to score. That is a credit to the coach.
Coaching Grade: A-
Michigan State withstood a huge first half from their in-state rival. They never looked panicked. They continued to fight, found ways to fight to get back into it, and exploded in the second half.
The negatives for the team were the rebounding and the early weakness under the basket. Michigan State cannot hope their opponents will go as cold as the Wolverines did in the second half. They need to find ways to consistently rebound.
The flashes from some newer lineups featuring Jaxon Kohler and even Xavier Booker raise the prospect that this team has a new gear they can find.
In this game, their grit and determination were enough to carry them to a big win over their rival. That’s a solid performance - even if the first half was a lot closer than it should have been.
Overall grade: B+