Michigan State basketball

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Why I believe Michigan State basketball will surprise people in 2022-23

Although Tom Izzo didn’t fill out the roster and lost some key players, Michigan State basketball is going to surprise people.

Who would have thought that we’d be talking about our excitement for Michigan State basketball in late-September after the football team finished 11-2 last year?

Depressing, I know.

There’s still time for the football team to turn things around, but the basketball program began practice this week and that just sparked some excitement for me.

I read a bunch of recaps from beat reporters who got to attend practice and everything made it seem like this is a tight-knit group of guys. We do hear that every year, but this is quite literally the smallest roster Tom Izzo has ever had.

He has decided not to utilize all of his open scholarships in order to ensure his team is tightly-knit. There’s no choice but for everyone to be close, warm, personal friends.

And that’s a good thing. Izzo’s best teams have played together for years and gelled at an extensive level — go back and look at the 2000 national champs and the 2009 Final Four team.

I think this year’s team — albeit not Izzo’s deepest or most talented — will surprise some people and it’ll be the best MSU team in three years.

And here’s why:

  1. As I mentioned, the roster is smaller and guys have been playing together for quite a while. This comfortability is bigger than you think.
  2. The younger guys are talented and will be forced to grow up quickly. The ceilings for Jaxon Kohler and Tre Holloman are incredibly high. And then you have Carson Cooper who Izzo says is better than he expected. He will have his redshirt burned.
  3. The backcourt depth is really solid as long as everyone is healthy.
  4. AJ Hoggard is that Mateen Cleaves/Draymond Green/Cassius Winston type leader that all good Izzo-coached teams have. He’s going to take that next step this year in all phases.
  5. While the frontcourt depth isn’t great, I do believe there’s plenty of flexibility in the lineups that the Spartans can run out. Mady Sissoko will get better (he has to), Kohler is going to grow up quickly, Cooper is also going to grow up fast, and Joey Hauser can stretch the floor on offense in a smaller lineup.
  6. Injuries are forcing key role players to step up in practice. With Jaden Akins and Malik Hall sidelines for a bit, other guys are being forced to step up and grow into larger roles in practice. This is only going to help down the line.
  7. The early schedule is an absolute gauntlet. This is going to be the most battle-tested team by the time conference play starts.
  8. Speaking of conference play, this may be the weakest Big Ten in years. A strong non-conference schedule is going to make this team more than ready.

This group has grown together and has seen what it takes to be successful. I think we’re going to see it surprise some people and exceed expectations this year. It’ll take some early lumps against top-ranked teams, but that will make it stronger when the conference campaign starts.

Am I drinking the annual Izzo Kool-aid? Dang right I am.

Jaden Akins

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Jaden Akins’ injury should be seen as opportunity for MSU basketball

Sophomore guard Jaden Akins just underwent surgery and will miss a month, at least. But his absence should be seen as an opportunity.

News broke on Tuesday after Jaden Akins, a budding sophomore for MSU, underwent surgery over the weekend to repair a stress reaction in his foot.

Although his timetable for a return didn’t signal that he’d miss any regular-season action, it still brought to the surface some concerns about the team’s depth.

As we all know by now, Tom Izzo decided to pocket some scholarships so as to not reach for guys who he didn’t think would help out right away. It’s not often you see a college basketball coach go out without a full roster of scholarship players, but Izzo is trying something new. He’s taking a chance.

Hopefully that risk will pay off, but if an injury trend continues into the season, the Spartans may be doomed. That’s why there was some panic around the fanbase when it was announced that Akins would miss a month after foot surgery.

What many don’t realize is that this injury and subsequent recovery time is going to present opportunities to guys who need to grow in certain areas.

Let me preface this by saying, yes, I acknowledge that Akins, too, needs to grow as a player and it would have been critical for him to stay healthy in the month leading up to the season. Development is key and this might hurt Akins a bit early on in his sophomore year.

But it’s not all bad news.

With Akins out for the next month of practice and conditioning, other guys will be forced to step up.

Pierre Brooks is the first name that comes to mind. He’s going to have a chance to really play that wing role potentially with the starters. His confidence could grow while playing next to AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker. Brooks needs more wing reps to get comfortable and after a big summer, this may be a perfect opportunity for him to take that next step on both ends of the court.

Tre Holloman is another name to keep an eye on with Akins sidelined for the next month. The incoming freshman will also get a chance to play that role on the wing even though he’s more of a point. He’ll be able to get more minutes at guard and hopefully get into a better flow offensively since his defense is currently his calling card.

And Malik Hall is taking on a new role this year on the wing. He’s going to ease into a more natural position and not necessarily be forced into the post anymore. Akins’ absence may force him to guard perimeter players in practice more and get him more comfortable with that defense.

Michigan State may not have its first action until Nov. 1 as the exhibition opener and Akins may still be held out then, but the team is still going to benefit from this in the long run.

Michigan State basketball

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Michigan State Basketball: Tom Izzo has found his second wind

After being dubbed “washed” by some fans of Michigan State basketball and most rivals, Tom Izzo has proven that it’s not the case.

Twelve years ago, Tom Izzo had to sit down with his family and make a decision about his future with Michigan State basketball.

The Cleveland Cavaliers had come calling, offering to double his MSU salary where he would also have a chance to coach LeBron James (LeBron eventually left the Cavaliers for the Heat). He had to decide if coaching in the NBA was really his dream or if he was happy being a successful college coach with a seemingly endless leash.

Izzo had gone to back-to-back Final Fours for the second time in his career and his stock was at an all-time high. It made sense that he was a top NBA head coaching candidate.

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, fans watched as Izzo made the decision to turn down the NBA (again) and return to Michigan State “for life.”

At the time, that proclamation of “Spartan lifer” seemed like just an expression to show he was in it for the long run. On Thursday, about 12 years and two months later, he made that term official. Izzo signed an extension, making him a “Spartan for life.”

Everyone expected him to remain with Michigan State until he retired, but this move just goes to show that he feels like he has a lot left in the tank. And it’s going to pay dividends for recruiting.

Izzo’s stability will help future recruiting classes and he’s going to be around for a while.

Plus, this proves that he found his second wind.

After a couple of pedestrian seasons, per his standards, it felt like Izzo was entering the twilight years much like Mark Dantonio did. It felt like he was gearing up for an upcoming retirement — potentially after his son graduated.

Not so fast (*in my best Lee Corso voice*).

Izzo has always said that he’ll be done coaching when he’s not having fun anymore. Clearly, after the past few weeks, he’s still having fun. He just completed one of the best recruiting classes of his entire tenure and he’s heading into the 2022-23 season with an extremely close-knit team.

Right when it looked like Izzo was about to ride off into the sunset in a couple of years, he signs a five-year deal that could pay him up to $6.2 million per year. And he pieced together a top-five recruiting class for 2023.

He’s not done yet.

Counting Izzo out is probably the worst thing anyone could do because he just comes back stronger. He loves being overlooked because that’s when he strikes and has his most successful seasons.

A run is coming. No. 2 is coming. Izzo is about to mess around and cut down some nets in the years to come.

Michigan State basketball

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The post-2000 Michigan State basketball Mount Rushmore

Tom Izzo has had plenty of elite Michigan State basketball over the past couple of decades. Who’s on the post-2000 Mount Rushmore?

Tom Izzo has brought in plenty of talent to Michigan State basketball over the years.

Countless, McDonald’s All-Americans, dozens upon dozens of top-100 and top-50 recruits, Mr. Basketballs, and Gatorade Players of the Year have called East Lansing home. He’s recruited every time zone (especially in the 2023 class) and he’s built himself a Hall of Fame career.

Throughout the years, there have been a handful of players who have stood out above the rest. Guys who would make a good case for “Mount Rushmore” in Michigan State basketball history.

Since I didn’t start really paying attention to MSU basketball until I was in third or fourth grade (because I can’t remember), I thought it’d be fun to do a post-2000 Mount Rushmore for the program.

Everyone knows that Shawn Respert, Steve Smith, and Magic Johnson each have a strong case to make the all-time Mount Rushmore, but let’s focus on the past two decades.

It’s hard to narrow it down to just four Michigan State basketball legends, but I did my best to choose a post-2000 Mount Rushmore.

Cassius Winston

First, I have Cassius Winston.

This one was easy for me not only because of a little recency bias but also because he was that good. Cassius did things with the ball in his hands that we’ll probably never see again. He was a generational point guard in East Lansing and I think he’s the best Tom Izzo has ever had at the position.

Cassius was the ultimate college point guard. He was slippery, crafty, and finished at the rim with what felt like 100 percent shooting percentage. He made every circus shot and he’s also Michigan State’s all-time assists leader. He was special and his No. 5 should be in the rafters soon. It’s a shame that COVID-19 cut his career short because 2019-20 felt like a national title season.

If I were to start a college team and I had to choose from Mateen Cleaves and Cassius in their primes, I’d choose the shy kid from Detroit Jesuit.

The All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year will never have to pay for a drink in East Lansing again.

Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine is next up. He’s the second-most recent addition to the post-2000 Michigan State basketball’s Mount Rushmore, but you can’t seriously have one of these without him. People forget just how dominant he was as an upperclassman.

Though his career got off to a slow start and he earned the nickname “Tragic Johnson” from Izzo, he finished it as strongly as a player could. Plus, he was a local kid and fan favorite.

I was a doubter of Valentine through his first two seasons as he seemed to make poor decisions with the ball and tried to be too fancy with it. He really broke out as a junior, averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists while improving every shooting metric. Valentine did so yet again as a senior, averaging 19.2 points, 7.8 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. He led what many — including myself — believe was the most complete regular-season MSU team in a decade.

Unfortunately, the former NABC Player of the Year and All-American seems to slip through the cracks because his career ended with a Middle Tennessee loss. He was better than that.

Draymond Green

OK, this one had to be the most obvious. The former all-time great Spartan leader and current NBA champion was an incredible talent after beginning his career as a three-star.

Like Denzel, Draymond Green was named the NABC Player of the Year and won the Big Ten Player of the Year award. He did a little of everything while he was in East Lansing and he was a phantom whistle shy of making the national title game against Duke as a sophomore. That play still haunts him and Butler’s Gordon Hayward even admits that he wasn’t fouled. OK, let’s stop talking about it, I’m getting upset.

Draymond was basically Izzo’s protege as a player-coach and held all of his teammates accountable. He was the perfect captain and he was a triple-double threat each time out.

As a senior, he had a huge year, averaging 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. He also shot the ball pretty well — NBA fans would never believe it. Draymond was also an elite defender and that’s translated to the NBA where he’s won multiple defensive player of the year awards.

Love him or hate him, Draymond is a Spartan legend.

Mateen Cleaves

Mateen Cleaves delivered Izzo his only national title. It’s hard to overlook that.

But many Michigan State fans would choose Cassius over Cleaves if given the option. That doesn’t make Cleaves any less of a Spartan legend. In fact, if you’re anything like me, he was your first favorite Michigan State basketball player. Growing up during the early years of Izzo, Cleaves was the inspiration to my basketball playing career (that didn’t exactly last a lifetime).

Mateen led the Spartans to a Final Four as a junior and won it all as a senior. Many believed Cassius was on the verge of that same fate. Cleaves was also the program’s all-time leader in assists; Cassius broke that record. Both are very similar, but Cassius was a better offensive threat while Mateen was an overall great player and leader.

Cleaves led vocally and Cassius led by example. You can’t go wrong with either one.

A three-time All-American, three-time All-Big Ten selection, and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, Mateen was one of Izzo’s first legends.

He makes the post-2000 Mount Rushmore because he won a national title in 2000 even though he played just a handful of months after the turn of the century. This is the perfect player to round out the Mount Rushmore.

Who would you put on your post-2000 Mount Rushmore? Did I miss anyone?

Michigan State basketball

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Predicting Michigan State basketball’s future starting 5 with Xavier Booker

Xavier Booker Day has come and gone and Tom Izzo was the biggest winner.

For months, Izzo has been working on showing Booker that he’s the top priority for Michigan State basketball’s 2023 class and that effort didn’t go unnoticed. Booker released a top 10 earlier last week and he only needed four days to decide that Michigan State was home.

Booker becomes Izzo’s top-ranked commit ever, sitting at No. 1 in the Rivals rankings and No. 3 on 247Sports. Jabari Parker, Josh Jackson, Caleb Swanigan, Brian Bowen, and Cliff Alexander can no longer hurt us.

With this pledge, Booker becomes the second verbal in the class, joining four-star point guard Jeremy Fears who’s ranked No. 42 in the class and helped lead Team USA’s U17 team to a title.

There are probably going to be 1-2 more additions to the class, but we already have a good (albeit way-too-early) projection for the starting five for the 2023-24 season.

Hint: It has some scary potential.

PG: AJ Hoggard, Senior

How good will a senior AJ Hoggard be? If his progression from his freshman to his sophomore year is any indication, he’s going to be an All-American. While that may be a bit premature, he has the look of the next great Michigan State point guard and if he can cut the turnovers down like he did in the second half of his sophomore season, he’s going to be very good. Add in a shooting touch as well, and he’ll be one of the greats because of his aggressiveness, leadership, and defense already in place and at plus levels.

SG: Jaden Akins, Junior

All aboard the Jaden Akins hype train. If you’re not on it before the start of the season, it’s going to be jam-packed by December of 2022. As a freshman, he averaged 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds and showed plus athleticism with a knack for defending the perimeter at a high level. He’s the perfect off-ball guard in this system and by his junior year, he may actually be the best player on the team. This backcourt will be lethal.

SF: Pierre Brooks, Junior

I’m going to buy some Pierre Brooks stock now because he’s done a really good job of transforming his body after an uneventful freshman season where he may not have been in the best shape. Down 20 pounds from the end of his freshman year, Brooks showed off in the Moneyball Pro-Am and put up 40-point games pretty much every time out. While Moneyball is not a good indicator of what to expect (see: Tum Tum Nairn), it still goes to show that his confidence is rising. I think we’re going to see him grow into a fan favorite and a go-to scorer by his junior year at the three.

PF: Xavier Booker, Freshman

The Xavier Booker commitment is still being felt days later and it’s given Tom Izzo some extra juice for his 2023 recruiting class. There are rumors swirling of four-star wing Gehrig Dormand joining the class and he’d be a nice depth piece on the wing, but Booker is the headliner of the class. Izzo’s top all-time commit is ranked the No. 3 player in the class on 247Sports and No. 1 overall on Rivals and he’s going to be in that Jaren Jackson Jr.-type role. He’ll be able to play inside-out and be a matchup nightmare for defenses. All he needs to do is improve his defense and he’ll be an easy one-and-done (he probably will be anyway).

C: Jaxon Kohler, Sophomore

Last, but certainly not least, is incoming freshman Jaxon Kohler who is going to be a star sophomore by the time Booker gets to East Lansing. A frontcourt with Kohler and Booker is going to be insanely effective on the offensive end and then you add in Mady Sissoko off the bench and there are three guys who will be starting-caliber in the post. Kohler thrives with his elite footwork and a year in the Izzo system will only make him better on both ends. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him averaging a double-double.

This team will be Izzo’s next best shot at a national title with scores from the one to the five.

Add in a bench of Jeremy Fears, Tre Holloman, Sissoko, Carson Cooper, and another 1-2 pledges (Devin Royal, Normand, Coen Carr) from the 2023 class, and Michigan State has the deepest team in the Big Ten with national title potential.

And there’s always a chance Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, or Tyson Walker could come back for another year which would bolster that depth even more.

No. 2 for Izzo could be on the horizon, folks.