Michigan State used grit, some impressive rebounding and a late game surge to beat Illinois 88-80. The game was a lot closer than that score indicates, with Illinois looking like the better team for much of the game. MSU came up with stops down the stretch, but often looked overmatched by Illinois versatile big man Coleman Hawkins and let Terrence Shannon Jr score 28 points.
Despite this, the Spartans used veteran savvy and effort to close the game on a 24-8 run over the final six and a half minutes. That effort led by AJ Hoggard and Malik Hall saved the game, and potentially the Spartans' NCAA tournament hopes.
This game had it all. Some great play and some reminders of Michigan States weaknesses. Let’s dive into the recap and grades.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Illinois is a solid team. They’ve hung around the number 10 national ranking for a long stretch this season. They’ve done that with, and without their top scorer Terrence Shannon, Jr. Despite the ranking and the multifaceted roster, the Fighting Illini don’t seem to be getting a ton of respect. The Spartans almost beat them on their court (notably while Shannon was suspended) and many have the Spartans favored in this matchup. The curve for this game should be a bit generous to Michigan State as they are technically playing above their level right now. That said, there are many that believe Michigan State should be playing at least at Illinois’ level this year - if not better - so it won’t be a huge curve.
Michigan State offensively started with some positives - but the type of positives that can cover problems. The first two set offensive plays were an isolation in the post to Malik Hall and an isolation drive by Tyson Walker. Both converted and looked great. Both also utilized limited ball movement - usually a problem for MSU when they start trying to play too much individual ball.
The Achilles heel for this team reared its ugly head almost immediately. Mady Sissoko took a nice looking feed in the post, backed down his defender, over dribbled and lost track of where he was on the floor before losing the ball on a weak shot. Carson Cooper came in for his normal rotation with Sissoko, tried a post move and lost the ball. This simply does not seem to be improving this year.
Jaxon Kohler tried to play some post offense and it still felt very mixed. Outside of a nice tap back off a miss, he also managed to get great position under the basket, over dribbled and lost the ball on a jump ball tie up. Criticism that this team simply cannot coach post players this year cannot get a much clearer example than this run of post play.
Despite the struggles, MSU was tied at 17 at the 12 minute media timeout. Walker was lights out when he could get free and AJ Hoggard was scrapping. Hoggard was doing what he has struggled to do so much this year - draw fouls and hit free throws. His six early points (4 from the line) were key to keeping MSU in this game. An important bounce back from his lackluster performance against Minnesota.
After a stagnant period, the Spartans started to feed off of Hoggard. The senior point guard had a steal while Illinois dribbled the ball up the court and it was part of a run of three layups for points (one a foul that turned into two made free throws). One each by Hoggard, Walker and Akins. Considering the Spartans had only taken two three pointers in the first 12 minutes of the game, the points at the rim were essential.
Again, MSU’s half court offense stagnated. Mady Sissoko was on the bench with two fouls and Carson Cooper was a net negative. It was the insertion of Jaxon Kohler that changed the game for the Spartans.
Kohler’s defense and offensive rebounds helped spark a 13-0 run that put the Spartans in the lead. It was remarkable seeing the Spartan offense look that much better with simply functional play at the center spot. Kohler is still limited, but that stretch was impressive and benefited the entire team by simply doing the little things well.
It’s worth noting the offensive run was fueled and then sustained largely by Malik Hall who had 9 11 points to keep the Spartans in the lead. As the Illinois defense started to focus on the fifth year senior it opened up the rest of the offense. The beneficiaries included Cooper, who had a dump off layup and Akins, who found himself open on a rotation for a great three pointer. (Notably Akins was then tagged for a technical for taunting the Illinois bench - a mistake he is too experienced to make, and caused Izzo to go apoplectic.)
It wasn’t always pretty but the Spartans ended the half with a 44-41 lead. The offensive explosion almost came out of nowhere. It came with Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins on the bench with foul trouble and was sparked by Jaxon Kohler at the center spot for the Spartans. At least the Kohler element is repeatable.
The second half saw MSU battling back and forth. The offense was once again sparked by inserting Kohler at the five spot. Michigan State found ways in the second half to dominate in the paint. Considering the team basically plays without an offensive center, the games where they can do this level of scoring at the rim is truly impressive. The problem was MSU was trading dominance at the rim for Illinois dominance at the three point line. Statistically not a great trade off, and it left the two teams trading the lead for the first 10-minutes of the second half.
AJ Hoggard got the blame for the lackluster result at Minnesota and did the opposite in this game. A huge transition three on one possession, a defensive effort on the next two possessions and a huge drive for an and-1 layup tied the game at 72. The Senior single handedly saved this game in that stretch.
MSU then went to its fifth year seniors. Malik Hall took on the mantle of closer from Hoggard and had three powerful possessions in a row in the post. His clutch free throw - a game after going 1 for 6 - put Michigan State ahead in late game action defined by athleticism and foul calls.
A late Tyson Walker steal that turned into a transition layup put the lead out to 80-76 with under two minutes to go.
Michigan State closed the game on a 24-8 run. It helped that Illinois absolutely panicked on offense and defense. Still, 88 points is a great scoring output.
The offense was balanced across Walker(19), Hoggard(23) and Hall(22) and relied on Akins’ ten points as well. It’s becoming clear offense outside those four is a bonus not to be relied on.
The low (for MSU) assist rate in this game (14 assists on 29 made shots) showed just how much individual ball MSU played in this game. That is not their game.
In part because of that, the offense was stagnant for too many stretches. MSU can be flummoxed in the half court when the ball stops moving. Sometimes it looks like that is a fatigue issue - or at least an energy preserving issue. With MSU’s core four all playing well over 30 minutes a game now, the half court may need to be slower like this the rest of the season.
The stagnant stretches dings the offensive grade a bit, despite an incredibly strong statistical game.
Offensive Grade: A-
The early description of Michigan State’s defense was simply poor. Three wide open threes dropped in the first four minutes. MSU was late to close out and lost track of players. The third was a Coleman Hawkins three where Jaxon Kohler was sitting in the paint instead of covering Hawkins. It felt like a home court call when Hawkins celebrated and got a technical foul.
Michigan State looked overmatched on defense. They were forced to foul to keep up. Malik Hall had an early foul after getting beat on penetration and Tre Holloman picked up a quick two in less than three minutes of game action. Even worse, Illinois owned the offensive glass early on. In one stretch, Illinois had three offensive rebounds on one possession and when MSU finally dragged down a rebound, Mady Sissoko got a foul call while laying on the floor (which was garbage) that turned a transition opportunity into Illinois ball. It felt like a two minute straight stretch of game where Illinois maintained possession. MSU being down only one point (15-14) was surprising at that point.
Michigan State gave up 5 three pointers in the first 8:30 of the game. Illinois had some guys getting hot that usually don’t hit, but it was also an indictment of the defense MSU was playing on the perimeter. Coleman Hawkins hitting his second just made the attack feel unstoppable.
In the first ten minutes of the game, Illinois took 12 three pointers (making six) and three shots anywhere else on the floor. The angle of attack by Illinois was clear, and Michigan State was scrambling to cover it. Izzo has taken this approach in the past to mixed results - letting an opponent fire from three and hoping the shooting statistics favor the Spartans. Early on, it was not working.
Once Illinois stopped hitting three pointers at a high rate it was Terrence Shannon Jr Time. The Senior scored six straight to tally 10 points in the first 14 minutes of the game. MSU had no first half answer for Illinois’ offense. That is until the closing run.
MSU went on a 13 point run with Jaxon Kohler playing solid defense. From there, MSU traded points with Illinois but maintained enough of a hold on Illinois that they led at half. They still gave up 41 points in the first half, but the last five minutes looked a lot better than the first 15 of the game.
MSU’s second half defensive strategy went back to their first game approach. Sissoko was put on Guerrier and Akins covered the more rangy Coleman Hawkins. Both got exploited immediately. Sissoko got stuck in the paint while Guerrier leaked out for a wide open three and Hawkins posted up Akins for an easy step back jumper. On the next possession Akins committed his third foul trying to guard Hawkins.
This forced MSU to bring in Coen Carr and the young Freshman got switched off Coleman immediately after failing to fight through a screen, and somehow ended up on Terrence Shannon who hit a long distance three over him. More time for Carr remains dependent on his ability to play defense. That was not a good first effort. The freshman notably did redeem himself on the offensive drawing a foul on an athletic play, and despite falling asleep on defense got a block (that was a goaltending violation).
For three possessions in a row after Carr was switched off Hawkins, his new man, Rodgers, got open to contribute to scoring. It stymied momentum created by some transition offense by the Spartans.
Defensively MSU simply did not have an answer for Coleman for much of the second half. His absence due to foul trouble in the first half looked like even more of a blessing as the talented big man stretched the floor and embarrassed essentially every MSU defender. Even when they could stop Hawkins he would find an open shooter and make the Spartans pay.
Late in the first half, AJ Hoggard started to find some defense. Instead of relying on the matchup against Hawkins, the Spartans started to drop off the guards and focus on preventing the pass into the Illini center. It worked as three defensive possessions in a row turned into turnovers.
The end of game turned on the perimeter defense. Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard had perimeter steals that turned into offense. The crowd and situation clearly rattled the Illini. The same way the home court advantage frazzled the Spartans in Champagne, the Illini got a taste of their own medicine in the final two minutes.
Once the crowd got into it late, Illinois crumbled. Illinois scored only 8-points over the final 6:30. They looked rushed, took poor shots, and made uncharacteristic mistakes. Michigan State found ways to deny Coleman Hawkins the ball and that limited the damage Illinois could do.
The defensive grade is still pretty poor. Illinois scored 80-points despite their end of game collapse. Their three point shooting in the first half was unacceptable and the damage Coleman Hawkins did when on the floor was nearly disastrous. MSU simply does not have an answer for someone with his multifaceted game.
Defensive Grade: C+
Transition early for MSU was more about defense than offense. Illinois can make you pay with up tempo offense. Coach Izzo made getting back on defense quickly a specific point of emphasis in practice coming into this game. It helped keep the early going a half court battle.
Michigan State got some transition offense finally going with Kohler on the floor in the second half. Taking the early rotation spot usually reserved for Cooper, Kohler helped spark some end to end offense with his presence on the defensive end.
Transition defense - despite being a focus - burned MSU in some key stretches. Particularly with Carson Cooper on the floor, MSU struggled to get back and set fast enough to prevent early penetration by the Illini. It helped Illinois grab a five point lead midway through the second half and put a lot of pressure on the Spartans.
Transition also may have helped save this game. After the half court offense was stagnant, a good defensive effort by Malik Hall on Coleman Hawkins led to a missed shot, a rebound and a run out to a huge three by AJ Hoggard. It helped cut an 8-point lead to three.
In the final two minutes back to back steals by Walker and Hoggard created transition that sealed the win. Another game where transition didn’t play enough of a factor but still showed up in key stretches. MSU can, and should be getting more out of this facet of the game - but its been there when they have absolutely needed it.
Transition Grade: B
Coach Izzo stuck with what is emerging as his standard rotation to start the game. Cooper came in around the 17-minute mark for Sissoko. Jaxon Kohler came in for Malik Hall about thirty seconds later. His next substitution inserted Tre Holloman, returned Hall and pushed Kohler to the five spot. It’s technically an 8-man rotation at this point - even though Kohler is still getting very limited minutes.
Izzo did give some extended run to Coen Carr around the 12-minute media timeout. He put Carr on the floor at the three, allowing Akins to switch over to the shooting guard and Walker to take a needed rest. It’s unclear if Carr got that time to see if the Freshman can get back to his previous level of production, or as a cover for Tre Holloman’s early fouls. Regardless, it was nice to see Carr on the court. His activity and energy were welcome, even if he still looked a little less effective than everyone would hope.
Izzo went to Kohler at the five after Sissoko picked up two fouls and Cooper looked overmatched on both ends of the floor. He battled in there, picked up some tip outs and a put back. Kohler’s rebounding and defense helped spark a huge MSU run that brought them from ten down to the lead at 35-23. This was the role MSU’s coaching staff had hoped Kohler would play before injury derailed his season.
Izzo stuck with Kohler in the early going of the second half. The sophomore was the first big man off the bench instead of Carson Cooper. It helped spark some offense. It would have been even more offense if Kohler could finish his great offensive moves. Just like his freshman year, Kohler has a frustrating habit of outmaneuvering his defender with incredible footwork then simply not finishing at the rim.
Izzo tried to steal some second half rest for Akins, Hall and Hoggard putting in a non-traditional lineup. Holloman, Walker, Carr, Kohler and Cooper is a lineup that lacks a lot of offensive flow. Nothing typified that more than Holloman throwing a pass straight into the stands. Holloman has effectively no turnovers this season (note: I know he actually has 17), so a mistake like that feels less on Holloman and more on the offensive flow of the unit on the court.
The offensive strategy late was both smart and an indictment of MSU’s roster. Izzo chose to run three sets in a row where he pulled Carson Cooper way out of the lane. The goal was to pull Coleman Hawkins away from the rim. Smart. The problem was Illinois didn’t bite at all, and it made MSU play offensive effectively 4 on 5 with Hawkins able to double anyone in the lane.
For the second game in a row, Izzo went with Carson Cooper to close the game. Despite the postgame comments by Izzo after the loss to Minnesota identifying his choice as part of the loss, he went back to it in this game. Cooper played better than he did against Minnesota but still had a key late foul on defense (admittedly a terrible call by the officials) that gave Illinois crucial free throws late. Sissoko played almost no time due to foul trouble in this game, so perhaps sticking with the more in the flow Cooper made sense despite the previous games struggles.
Izzo was able to keep his key guys fresh for the end of the game. Despite limited time for Tre Holloman and Sissoko due to fouls, Izzo navigated foul trouble and fatigue for his veteran leaders. Spot minutes from Carr helped and some extremely valuable minutes from Kohler were crucial. Even more important, Izzo trusted Walker and Hall to play with fouls and was rewarded.
Coaching Grade: A-
Michigan State won this game despite some serious flaws. The defense was not able to stop Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins for long stretches. The offense looked stagnant for too many stretches. Yet, Michigan State found a way to keep the game close and make a late run.
Fueled in part by the crowd, Illinois fell apart as Michigan State’s veterans took over late in the game.
A key to this victory was rebounding. MSU was outrebounded heavily in the early going then found a way to bring the margin back to even. Despite the lack of size compared to Illinois and a mediocre game from Michigan State’s centers (other than two big stretches from Jaxon Kohler), MSU found a way to win the fight on the glass.
Michigan State has gone the way its veterans go this season - particularly AJ Hoggard and Malik Hall. Both delivered impressive performances. They played gritty, opportunistic defense, grabbed rebounds and found offense. Most importantly (considering the performance at Minnesota) they got to the line and hit free throws.
Even Jaden Akins contributed a strong game. His six rebounds led the team, and they needed all 10 of his points to secure this win.
The Spartans may have found something with Jaxon Kohler at the five spot. He clearly helped spark two big momentum swings in the game, even if he cannot be relied on down the stretch of games yet.
A stat to keep an eye on in the closing weeks of the season is three pointers attempted. MSU totaled 88 points while only taking 8 three pointers (hitting 5). In the modern era of the game that is essentially a unicorn level outcome. By comparison, Illinois took 30 three pointers. MSU winning runs counter to the analytics revolution that has changed three point shooting forever.
Michigan State reminded everyone of their weaknesses in this game and yet still found a way to win. The home court (and crowd) clearly helped. That doesn’t make the win any less valuable. This may be the one (if MSU can avoid a major collapse to close the season) that secures Michigan State’s place in the NCAA tournament.
The grade is a bit lower than one might expect simply because of the deficiencies on defense.
Overall Grade: B+