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Michigan State Beat By Northwestern: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

Northwestern put on an offensive clinic as they handed the Spartans a tough loss. Michigan State had some positives in the game, but none of them were on defense.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State lost 88 to 74 to the Northwestern Wildcats. The road game for the Spartans was lost in an 8-minute stretch in the first half. The Wildcats outscored the Spartans 20-5 to end the half. While the Spartans had a decent offensive night, their defense simply could not keep them in this game.

There were some highlights in this loss, but it was still a bad loss. Without further ado, let’s get into the grades.

Details of the Curve for this Game: Northwestern matches up well with the Spartans. On paper they have an experienced and old set of guards who carry a team with a poor front court. This is almost exactly the description of the Spartans. The problem with setting the curve for Northwestern was their schedule. Outside of a huge win against then number 1 Purdue and a massive blowout loss to Illinois, almost the entirety of the rest of Northwestern’s schedule was lower level opponents. Without a better indicator, the curve for this game should have meant the Spartans were better than Northwestern.

Offense:

Michigan State’s offense looked disjointed to start the game. It’s a fact that defense and assists never seem to flow the same on the road, and this game started with that cliche proving out. As the Spartans got stymied trying to push the ball in transition, their offense became a lot of isolation hero ball. This is a team that thrives on assists and they were doing everything but passing early on.

Out of the first media timeout, Tre Holloman helped kickstart a more passing focused offense. It helped MSU tie it up with Northwestern. The road element still surfaced as MSU missed a few open shots. The shooting percentage tends to drop on the road, and the Spartans were seeing that in real time.

The one area that kept Michigan State afloat was the long ball. Even as their overall shooting percentage dipped a bit, the three pointer kept them in the game. They were 4 of 6 early from deep.

By comparison, any time MSU went inside they missed badly or turned it over. The front court for Michigan State had shown serious improvement recently, but they did not look good for most of the first half. On top of that, the Spartan guards could not get the type of penetration they’ve become accustomed to in their recent dominant play.

The offense for much of the first half was defined by the 7 turnovers and limited second chance baskets. Despite 7 offensive rebounds, MSU struggled to keep possessions alive. As Northwestern heated up on offense, the Spartan offense looked tight. Even Tyson Walker looked like his shots were a half second rushed.

31 points in the first half is technically not a bad performance. Considering how fast Northwestern was scoring on offense though, MSU had the opportunities to keep the game closer by playing with more team control in the first half.

The Spartans second half offense started with a truly strange focal point: Mady Sissoko. Three of the first four possessions featured Sissoko action at the rim. Two resulted in baskets, the third resulted in a drawn foul. Even more unlikely, when Sissoko went to the bench, Cooper kept the under the basket scoring going with back to back buckets.

The Spartans had started hot from outside, going 4 for 6. They then went 1 for 7 for the close of the first half and the first ten minutes of the second half. The counterpunch seemed to be the focus on scoring in the paint in the second half. The approach worked to create points but against the Northwestern guards who were draining threes from everywhere it didn’t close the gap on the scoreboard.

Two huge AJ Hoggard threes helped spark the Spartans. The second brought MSU to 11-points behind by the 8-minute media timeout. The closest they’d been since late in the first half.

The Spartan offense kept grinding. Tyson Walker tried to put the team on his back and Jaden Akins and AJ Hoggard kept hoisting shots fearlessly. The offense though could not overcome the defensive lapses.

MSU put up 74 points against a legitimate defense. They did this while heaving up desperation shots and looking disorganized. The scoring was balanced across Walker(27), Akins(13) and Hoggard(13). Even Sissoko and Cooper combined for 17 points. The team shot 48% from the field and 47.4% from three. Outside of Malik Hall’s disappearing act, this was a solid offensive performance. Not great, but solid.

Offense Grade: B+

Defense:

Northwestern looked like the more physical team before the first media timeout. Northwestern used quick passing, hard screens and physical drives to the basket to create opportunities. The Spartans were a bit back on their heels. It didn’t help either team that the refs were blowing the whistle constantly.

The early kryptonite for the Spartans was a familiar foe: Boo Buie. The refs seemed dedicated to helping the fifth year Wildcat. On three straight plays Buie drove the lane and drew fouls. On the third Buie seemed to fall down while misplanting his foot and Jaden Akins was called for the foul.

The rest of the Wildcats followed suit. Northwestern was cold from outside early and essentially abandoned the three point for a segment in the first half. They traded for drives and put backs at the rim. Michigan State’s long standing problem with defensive rebounding resurfaced at a bad time. Mady Sissoko had looked so good of late and yet in a three minute stretch looked completely ineffectual as Northwestern had three baskets in a row on put backs.

Michigan State looked like they were chasing and getting out muscled. The few times the Spartans dug in the refs would bail out Northwestern and call a touch foul.

When Northwestern found the range from deep, MSU had no answer. Three quick three pointers pushed the lead for the Wildcats to 6 points (34-28). That kicked off a run that closed the half.

Northwestern started finding ways to extend possessions and turn multiple out of control scenarios into long distance threes. A 20-5 run to end the half was the type of home court run that defines conference play. The home team just gets those bounces and rolls.

Michigan State kicked off their recent winning streak holding Baylor to less than 20-points in the first half. That was one of the best offensive teams in the country. Against a much less talented Northwestern, they let up 46 points in the first half. That’s a disastrous first half performance.

The second half did not start any better than the first half ended. Even as the offense started to try and crawl back into the game, the defense for the Spartans couldn’t stop the Wildcats. On multiple plays, Akins or Hoggard got caught watching the ball handler and letting their man slip open for a three. The shots were contested but they were all Northwestern needed on a night where it felt like everything was falling for them.

Despite the talent of the Spartans guards as defenders, they got exposed repeatedly in this game. Too often the Spartans lost track of one of Northwestern’s three shooters and paid the price.

Every time the offense started to hit shots, the defense simply couldn’t get a stop. Northwestern used hard cutting to get shooters open and create looks near the basket. Similar to the struggles Michigan State had against Indiana State, Northwestern used motion to absolutely confound MSU’s defense.

The Spartans defense lost this game. They lost it in the first half when they let Northwestern go nuts from three. They continued to lose it in the second half when they could not get a stop at any crucial moment. It seemed Northwestern was constantly a step (or two or three) ahead in their offensive motion. This was a failing effort.

Defense Grade: F

Transition:

Northwestern has too much experience in its backcourt to get caught off guard by the Spartan transition game. The Spartans tried at least three times in the first five minutes to push the ball and immediately dribbled back out. It left the offense looking confused and the players looking frustrated. Combine that with some suspect whistles going against both teams early and there was zero flow to the early going.

The first real fastbreak conversion for the Spartans came with authority. After multiple missed defensive rebounds resulted in a Northwestern made basket, Carson Cooper tried to redeem himself. He ran the length of the floor and was rewarded with a great pass for a huge slam.

After the Cooper slam, there was essentially no further good news for the Spartans. On defense in transition they got exposed multiple times. Even when the Spartans would stop the drive and catch a Northwestern player out of control the ball would find its way to a shooter with no defender setup. These open threes fueled Northwestern blowing the Spartans off the court for the first half.

The second half saw almost no transition elements. MSU’s defense was compromised all game and its offense played inconsistently. The real gap for the Spartans though was the utter absence of transition opportunities. Notably, the stat sheet credits MSU with 20 fast break pints, but the eye test did not see that kind of impact. The summary is, when MSU had the opportunities they did ok. The problem was they just did not create enough of those opportunities.

Transition Grade: C

Coaching:

The team came out focused and playing hard but not converting. Early on the veterans settled for hero ball way too often. It took the 16-minute media timeout and inserting Tre Holloman of the offense to settle back into some semblance of flow and passing. This is a credit to Coach Izzo - though it is his team that didn’t start that way.

The first half was choppy because of the refs. It felt like there was almost no flow early because of the whistles that rang out. Those whistles seemed to most impact AJ Hoggard who had a rough first half for the second game in a row. Sitting Hoggard for long stretches fit with a larger effort to get depth on the floor for the Spartans.

The use of the depth kept people fresh but also made the team look a little disjointed. Carson Cooper got extended minutes despite mixed results. That looked like a conscious effort to limit Sissoko’s exposure to whistle happy refs.

Probably the most confusing rotation choice was the use of Xavier Booker for a three minute stretch just after the 15-minute mark. Notably, Booker came in before Coen Carr. The use of the struggling freshman big man left the Spartans playing essentially four on five. The score didn’t change much during that run, but it did kill some momentum Michigan State had built coming out of the first media timeout.

In the final ten minutes of the first half it seemed like the Spartans had no answers for anything. Izzo cycled through Sissoko and Cooper looking for someone to stop the dominance Northwestern was displaying in rebounding and points in the paint. The guards for MSU just couldn’t contain Northwestern’s guards. This didn’t seem to be an obvious strategic blunder (like say the Wisconsin loss). It simply looked like MSU got outplayed. Izzo was searching for answers and had none in that first half.

The second half adjustment seemed to be to pound the paint. In a season where MSU’s front court has almost never been a go-to scoring unit, Izzo called the number of both Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper. It worked offensively. Beyond that though the Spartans didn’t look like they brought much adjustment in from the half.

Izzo brought in Jaxon Kohler for his first minutes of the season. There was never going to be a good time to bring in Kohler outside of a game with a massive lead. Down close to 20, it felt a bit like Izzo was waving the white flag. Contrary to that sense, Izzo continued to call plays that fed the ball to Kohler. Kohler had a miss and a nice pass out of a double team (to a missed wide open three by Akins). Defensively, Kohler still looked a little lost. Regardless of the details, getting the sophomore onto the court for his first minutes of the season was an important step to building this team to win late in the year.

Bringing Xavier Booker back for a second stint late in the second half was Izzo waving the white flag. The Spartans were down 14 with five and a half minutes left. If MSU really believed it could come back at that stage, Booker had no business being on the floor. His first “contribution” was getting utterly dusted on a drive. Booker got so discombobulated he fell on top of the driving Wildcat for an embarrassing foul. Booker got pulled immediately.

After Booker got pulled, MSU went with a small ball lineup to try and close the gap. The lineup of Hoggard, Walker, Akins, Holloman and Hall has some obvious upside. It also has some risks. In this game, the defensive liabilities were basically a wash, as no lineup seemed capable of stopping the Wildcats. The surprising struggle was on the offensive end. This lineup did not appear to have practiced much together. The missing ingredient was who would actually provide the screens to pop people free. It left MSU going back to isolation hero ball and it did not look smooth.

With two and a half minutes left Izzo threw in the towel with Carr and Booker re-inserted. It’s a credit to Tyson Walker’s effort that the Spartans made it look competitive with the two freshmen on the floor.

Tom Izzo loves to talk about his players getting caught reading their own press clippings. This game had the feel of that a little - even from Coach Izzo. the lead up had a lot of coverage of izzo praising his team. It seemed like he convinced himself the roster had solved its problems. Instead, the Big Ten road reminded everyone this team still has a lot of work to do to be dominant night in and night out.

Coaching Grade: C

Overall:

This game started as a classic Big Ten road game for the Spartans. Nothing came easy. The shots that usually fell near the basket bounced out. The free throws did not fall. The calls by the refs seemed to go against the Spartans in key moments. All classic road game hiccups. It left Michigan State looking outplayed, and worse out muscled for most of the first half.

The difference in the game was the final eight minutes of the first half. Northwestern outscored MSU 20-5 to close the half as they started to light it up from deep. Michigan State simply could not keep up with the physical, cutting and whirling Wildcat guards.

Even after MSU limited the turnovers in the second half and ended up winning the rebounding battle, they could not dig out of the hole they dug in the first half.

When the Spartans shoot near 50% from the field and the three point line they usually win. Northwestern just found more offense when they needed it.

The final score looked worse than the performance, but it was still a bad performance. Michigan State cannot win when its defense does not control the game. Any effort that lets the opponent pile up 88 points is a bad performance.

Overall Grade: C-

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?