Michigan State absolutely dismantled Penn State, blowing their Big Ten opponent out 92-61. The Spartans dominated in almost every single facet of the game. The starting five for Michigan State played one of their most complete games of the year.
While the vibes should be incredibly good after this type of win, this game still left some questions to be asked. Below is my three point shot (plus an and-1). It may be odd to nitpick a win like this, but some of the play - particularly of the second string for MSU - left a few concerns even after the big win.
POINT 1: Malik Hall is starting to be the guy the Spartans need this year
Malik Hall had an incredible game. The stat line alone makes that obvious. Hall had 24 points, including 2 for 2 from three point. He added 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. This is the all around, stat stuffing, Draymond Green type performance MSU has desperately needed from the fifth year senior.
Hall has a career of being inconsistent offensively. His value has often been measured by how well he keeps the team organized and defensively cohesive.
Early this year, some (very vocal) fans wanted Hall to play a limited backup role. Even as one of Hall’s defenders the frustration from fans still made some sense. Hall might flash for double digit scoring in one game, deploying a few great looking moves for a night then play pedestrian offense for the next two weeks. That combined with his impact on team defense often being hard to see in the stat sheet has left him with a mixed reputation.
The last few games have started to change that. Even with low individual scoring against Baylor and Stony Brook, Hall’s value to the team has been clear. He is helping the offense flow, he is grabbing rebounds and he is (finally) spreading the floor. Hall may not regain his quality three point shooting from last year (his shot does look odd this year), but he may not have to do that for the Spartans. The guards are spreading the floor so well, that deploying Hall in the post - or just outside the paint - is proving to be incredibly effective.
The potential of pairing Hall with an actual offensive front court mate in Jaxon Kohler should have everyone excited. Hall could start stacking assists if he can draw the defense and have someone in the paint to reliably dump the ball to in response.
Hall looks to be having the senior renaissance pioneered by the likes of Kenny Goins and Joey Hauser. It changes the outlook for this team substantially for the better.
POINT 2: This game showed the impact of the loss of Jeremy Fears, and the answer
The loss of Jeremy Fears for the foreseeable future left the Spartans with a big hole to fill. The backup point guard may not be crucial on some teams but for this year’s squad, Fears’ minutes were starting to look crucial.
Fears played defense at a high level and was starting to become a key distributor when AJ Hoggard was not on the floor. Considering Hoggard has struggled with fouls at times, and has a history of playing best when he is on the floor for less than 30-minutes a game, Fears role was going to be a solid 15-minutes at least a game.
In this game, Fears would have played a central role in the first half after AJ Hoggard was limited with foul trouble. Instead, the Spartans rolled out their answer: More Tyson Walker.
Walker had moved away from playing point guard last year. He returned to the role late in the season as the backup when Hoggard was off the floor. The decision helped fuel the late MSU surge. Despite the emergence of Tre Holloman as a shooter this year, it seems Tom Izzo is not waiting to pull Walker back into the backup point guard minutes.
Walker had five assists in the first half. His offense was impressive, but it was his ability to direct the broader team that really stood out. Even in transition, Walker overcame his habit of slow walking the ball and consistently looked down court for run out opportunities.
The team is at its best with AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker on the floor together. It would have been even better with the option to bring in Jeremy Fears. When that is not possible, Tyson Walker running the point for stretches of the game is going to be a clear advantage for the Spartans in many games.
POINT 3: It’s clear where Jaxon Kohler’s minutes are going to come from
In a game with so many positives for the Spartans, one true blight stood out: Carson Cooper. The sophomore big man entered the season as a likely breakout candidate. Cooper had gone from a completely unheralded recruit to an important role player last year. Down the stretch last year, Cooper had often looked like the best front court option. This year the story has been different.
Cooper at one point this year was playing well enough to enter the starting lineup. It felt like the natural progression of his talent and feel for the game overcoming Mady Sissoko. Since then, Cooper has regressed game by game. Even as the front court production overall has improved for the Spartans, Cooper looks out of sync too often.
Against a smaller Penn State team, Cooper got blown by more than a few times and drawn out of position repeatedly. On offense he seemed to inherit Mady Sissoko’s inability to hold onto the ball. On at least three possessions, a guard would rifle a pass to Cooper that he simply could not handle. On a night where every Spartan player found ways to contribute offensively early in the game, Cooper was giving them nothing.
Cooper may still improve - he did last year late. But the impending return of Jaxon Kohler should mean Cooper’s minutes are fairly drastically curtailed.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): Xavier Booker is still a work in progress
Xavier Booker has incredible talent and potential. The physical gifts are there (minus strength - that can come) and his shot looks pure. He still has a long, long way to go.
Booker got extended minutes in this game that will be valuable to his development. Anyone that is looking for him to play these types of minutes in contested games should look at the defensive effort he put on the floor.
Almost every single stretch with him on the floor - and particularly when he was sharing the floor with Coen Carr - the Spartans struggled defensively. Worse, the rebounding absolutely disappeared. Any half-decent center or power forward MSU plays should know how to outplay the freshman big man: bump him off his spot and muscle straight up for the rebound or shot.
Penn State’s Qudus Wahab absolutely owned Booker any time they matched up.
Michigan State may still need Booker this year. It’s no guarantee that Jaxon Kohler comes back and makes an impact. Carson Cooper (see above) is regressing and Mady Sissoko always seems on the verge of a game where he is unplayable.
Booker’s shooting could be the difference in a big game. If the front court stalls and Malik Hall is in foul trouble, they will need to go to Booker. The concern will be if MSU can afford to have Booker’s defensive liabilities on the floor. If Booker can learn to box out, even in a rudimentary way, that could be the difference between valuable minutes in a crucial game, and the Spartans getting pummeled when they are forced to play him.
Hopefully there are more big margin wins that give Booker time on the floor in the near future.