Michigan State got beaten soundly by Northwestern on the road. The 88 to 74 loss for the Spartans was a reality check after a solid win streak. The way they lost brings up some serious questions about the veterans and the rotation.
Here is my three point shot on the game.
POINT 1: The Spartans are too veteran, and too talented to be learning lessons like this game
Playing on the road is tough in college basketball. Home court advantage truly matters in the college game. Strange things happen to visiting teams. The bounces and calls don’t go their way. The rims never seem as forgiving. The young guys struggle.
The answer on the road is usually veteran leadership. Michigan State is one of the most experienced in the country. In this game, Michigan State’s veterans got outplayed early and often.
MSU’s four guards: Tyson Walker; AJ Hoggard; Jaden Akins; and Tre Holloman are all solid defenders. They got beat consistently on defense. On offense, particularly in the first half, these four guys looked shaky and gun shy (with potentially the exception of Tyson Walker). Beyond the guards, Malik Hall absolutely looked like a freshman playing his first road game (more on him below).
In their defense, the backcourt for Michigan State did get it together. Walker, Akins and Hoggard were in double figures. The shooting percentages were high by the end of the game. The problem was the control and focus.
The Spartans had nearly double digit turnovers in the first half. These came in bunches and they came in crucial moments.
On defense, they lost track of shooters consistently. They could not get a stop when they needed it. They consistently made freshman mistakes like ball watching and losing track in switches.
In a younger team the line after a loss like this would be: it’s a good learning experience. The young guys will learn how to focus on the road and how to respond to home crowd runs. But MSU is too old for that theory. They’ve played these games. They’ve lost (and won) these games in the past.
It’s time for the veterans to stop making rookie mistakes. There is no more room for error - particularly errors like this.
POINT 2: Malik Hall shows how valuable he is - even when he disappears
Games like this are what make fans so nuts when it comes to Malik Hall. Hall is coming off a stretch of high quality basketball. Even in the games where he is not getting double digit scoring, he has been contributing well and helping the team win.
In this game he essentially did nothing. Hall’s stat line had two turnovers and one personal foul in 25-minutes. That’s it. He had no rebounds, no assists, and no scoring.
In a game where MSU technically won the rebounding effort and had four guys in double digit scoring it’s frustrating to ask what would have happened if Hall had even a half decent game.
Michigan State can ride its back court to some success. It can survive its front court playing inconsistently (though in this game, Cooper and Sissoko combined for a pretty good 17 points and 11 rebounds). It desperately needs production from its fifth year senior power forward.
Michigan State’s offense does not flow without the power forward being at least a threat to score. The defense cannot function without some physical edge being brought from the front court.
In many games Hall is quarterbacking the front court defense. In this game he too often looked slow to rotate and get in front of Northwestern’s driving guards. He was almost no help boxing out, allowing Northwestern to exploit second chance points - particularly in the first half.
Behind Hall there is really not an alternative. When he has a bad game, the current lineup construction has Xavier Booker coming in. That’s clearly not helpful for the Spartans.
Michigan State needs to figure out what went wrong for Hall tonight. He does not need to score 20+ points a night, but he cannot have another game where he is essentially a ghost floating around the court.
POINT 3: The Spartans need to figure out the lineup rotation soon (Yes, this is in part about Xavier Booker)
Michigan State went into the Holiday with their rotation looking set. Fears was the backup point guard and Holloman the backup shooting guard. Both could be run out on the floor alongside the starters AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker to give Jaden Akins a rest at the three spot. Coen Carr was emerging as an interesting, undersized four man backing up Malik Hall. Carr would occasionally flex to the three spot alongside Hall for a version of a “big” lineup. But even that was rare.
The tragic (non-fatal) shooting of Jeremy Fears, Jr. while he was home for the holidays has reset much of this. Obviously, Fears is not the backup point guard for the foreseeable future. This has made Holloman the backup to both Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard. It has also seen Walker spend more time at the point guard - sometimes with Holloman on the floor. The rotation at the point guard and shooting guard still looks pretty good.
The three spot is where the confusion starts. In part to make up for the loss of Fears and in part to give Xavier Booker more time on the floor, it is clear that MSU moved Coen Carr to backing up Jaden Akins. This has created a more concerted depth rotation of Carr behind Akins and Booker behind Hall. The results of this move do not look great.
The offensive spacing collapsed against Northwestern with Carr in at the three spot. Carr’s limitations as a shooter are exacerbated with him playing the three spot. MSU’s offense requires the three man to spend a lot of time in the corner waiting for an open three. Carr brings essentially no threat of this, and defenses are sagging off of him. The offense as designed requires the wing to create some shots by driving to the basket, the inside out action creating separation.
Carr is still learning the complexity of the three spot for the Spartans offense. The shame is, the freshman had finally looked like he was figuring out how to play the four spot. When Carr is forced to the three spot, even his highlight reel dunks seem to disappear as he looks purposeless so far from the basket.
Carr becoming the primary backup to Jaden Akins opened up a need for a primary backup to Malik Hall. Xavier Booker is the only option for this. It’s clear he is not ready for that type of responsibility. Despite that, Izzo rolled Booker out as the first wave of relief for Hall at the four spot. His struggles were limited by the only four minutes he spent on the floor. All four of those minutes screamed struggle.
Izzo committing to this new depth approach is hurting this team. Perhaps Izzo will stick with it under the goal of giving Booker experience so that he grows. The problem will be how much that effort to improve Booker starts to undercut the improvement of Carr.
Michigan State needs Carr or Booker to be viable for big games. The preference would be for both to develop this year into valuable depth pieces. It’s looking less likely that will be the case.
If it can be only one of them, the rotation needs to be tightened to put Carr back primarily at the four spot. This will mean Izzo needs to figure out how to rotate the four guards: Walker, Hoggard, Akins, and Holloman; through the one through three spots. That could be a big load for them, but it is what is needed after losing Fears.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what your takeaways from the game in the comments.