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Michigan State basketball: 3 takeaways from win over No. 10 Illinois

What a win.

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Michigan State basketball
© Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

In what was by far the most important sporting event of the weekend, Michigan State basketball faced No. 10 Illinois. What are the takeaways?

Michigan State basketball was back in action on Saturday following a loss earlier in the week at Minnesota. Tom Izzo, Tyson Walker, and the Spartans returned looking to right the ship. Illinois has had the Spartans number at home in recent matchups, and today was a crucial chance for a resume-building win for Izzo’s squad. At 14-9, the Spartans did not enter the game as a lock for the tournament, making a good showing today vital. While not a “must-win,” this was a do-or-die situation. The Spartans prevailed in a slugfest, 88-80.

Each team was nearly even today, with the main discrepancy being the Illini scoring from the 3-point line and the Spartans from the charity stripe.

It is hours after the game, and I am still catching my breath. That said, what else did we learn today? Also, we get a takeaway from a player today. Stay tuned for that in my third takeaway.

1. Neither team had anywhere to hide

This game started with a 4-0 Michigan State basketball run, but after that it would be a game with no separation. Multiple controversial fouls and a Coleman Hawkins tech made this game close. Hoggard already had 4 free throws before the under-12, and drilled them all. The Illini pulled out to a seven-point lead, but Michigan State basketball brought it back to a two-point deficit by the under-eight at 7:52.

AJ Hoggard was locked in to begin the game. After his first 4 free throws, he helped the Spartans rally from down seven, with a steal and score against Illini guard Marcus Domask. The Illini again pulled it to an 8-point lead, and then Malik Hall sparked a rally with five points, Hoggard knocked down two free throws, and Jaden Akins added a steal and a 3-pointer to put the Spartans out front. No one could breathe or get separated from each other for long. MSU then tried its hand at pulling a lead, but Illinois kept it close and the Spartans only led by three at half.

Naturally, Illinois hit a three on their first possession of the half to make it even. Tyson Walker added a quick five, but Shannon and Domask hitting threes prevented any Spartan separation. Illinois led by two at the under-16 at 14:48. After Walker picked up foul three, MSU was still tied up at the under-12, 60-60. Illinois looked to put the game away on a 12-2 run, but then MSU brought it back. AJ Hoggard had two consecutive three-point plays, drilling on from the corner and picking up an and-one. Walker came back with excellent defense. Both players with techs, Akins and Hawkins, picked up their fourth foul within 30 seconds of each other.

The Spartans rallied from the down eight points deficit to be leading by 8 with 30 seconds remaining, and the Illini went ice-cold at the worst time. AJ Hoggard, Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins, and even Carson Cooper made clutch plays at the end. Izzo stated he wanted more out of his veterans, from the veteran coach (himself) to the senior players. We saw that today, with the quartet of Hall, Akins, Walker, and Hoggard combining for one turnover and 74 points. Michigan State basketball was back today, and in a big way. The game was a slugfest, and after it was called a March atmosphere, Tom Izzo agreed, also stating “I hope this is what March is like, because we won.”

2. AJ Hoggard is so back

Today, we started the day by seeing flashes of the old AJ Hoggard. He went to the line early by drawing a foul when driving, nailing both shots. Izzo elected to keep Hoggard hot, sending him to the line after the Hawkins tech. He then had another two and then the old AJ came back. He started pressing Domask, getting the quick steal and score to put him at 8. While Hoggard did not get another steal the rest of the half, he disrupted the whole Illinois offense by making Domask uncomfortable. Domask rarely handled the ball after passing it off, and he nearly turned the ball over right before half.

The AJ Hoggard of the last few games rarely had points, but racked up assists. Against Minnesota, he had zero points and five assists at half. Today, he had 10 points and three assists. He added the first rebound of the game by pouncing on it. Flashes of “the newer AJ” showed up too, with a pass nearly going out of bounds late in the first half. However, Akins corralled it, and Hoggard ended the first half turnover free. In fact, all of his 35 minutes tonight were turnover free. In the locker room post-game, he stated that he was prouder of his 0 turnovers tonight than his 23 points.

Tyson Walker picked up foul three early in the second half, and he was pulled for a break. On one of the first possessions after, AJ Hoggard called his shot and had a layup to give him 12 points. AJ was back on Domask, and the Illini could not expand a lead again. Who else other than Hoggard would rally the team today? His corner three and and-one made MSU tie this game at 72 on an 8-0 run. He did all this clean too, as Hoggard picked up his first foul with five minutes left.

After his missed free throw on Tuesday was part of a cacophony of errors that lost Michigan State the game, Hoggard went 12-for-13 from the line tonight. He led the team with 23 points, also adding two boards and five assists. In the locker room media availability, Hoggard said he stepped up today, along with Malik Hall saying the senior guard made a big step up today.

3. It was the day of the upperclassmen for Michigan State basketball

In the first takeaway, I mentioned that Tom Izzo stated that the veterans needed to step up, from coaching to players. We certainly saw that today, with Hoggard, Hall, and Walker all hitting 19 or more points. Tom Izzo mentioned post-game that he had almost never seen three players hit 20 in a game, and that nearly happened today if Tyson Walker had hit a free throw in the final eight seconds.

When you throw in the junior Jaden Akins to the trio, the numbers are outright insane. As mentioned above, they had 74 points to one turnover. Additionally, the quartet adds five steals, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists. All of this with only one turnover is a mind-boggling stat that I doubt will be replicated in a top-10 matchup for the foreseeable future. Brad Underwood lamented this, stating that the defense gave Hall too many looks in the post near the end.

In his post-game press conference, Tom Izzo called Tyson Walker’s game “average” today, and it is insane to see a 19-point, three-assist game be called that. Izzo talked on the missed free throws as the main example of Walker being average, and he played a tough 34 minutes today despite missing a practice with injury this week. That said, Tyson did not appear on the Big Ten injury report this week.

Malik Hall came alive late, with Coleman Hawkins, Luke Goode, and Quincy Guerrier all playing cautiously with foul trouble. This, on top of his huge three pointer in the first half, propelled the Spartans. Hall made multiple three-point plays today with and-ones, helping keep pace with Illinois. The Illini made eleven three pointers compared to the Spartans’ five, but Hall, Walker, and Hoggard all added at least one and-one. Underwood stated that Hall’s plays were crucial, but prior defensive lapses had already doomed his squad. When Hall was asked for his main takeaway in the locker room following today’s game, it was “that we (Michigan State basketball) can do this.”

Jaden Akins added a pair of three pointers, but his foul trouble cooled him down. Of the quartet, Akins was on the court the least, at ‘only’ 32 minutes. Izzo mentioned that it felt like Akins was on the court less due to his foul trouble, and I agree that it did seem that way. Another point of emphasis on Akins was his tech, and Izzo was very displeased at it. It sucked the momentum from MSU at the end of the half, but Akins recaptured momentum with multiple rebounds and a late steal.

In all, this is a win that Michigan State basketball needed. Even after losing, Brad Underwood called it a “great basketball game,” and Tom Izzo stated “thank God for home games.”

The Spartans will not have that home advantage on Tuesday, as they play at Penn State against a Nittany Lions team that Izzo was very complimentary of tonight.

Michigan State Media and Information Management Class of '22. Emmett covers primarily football, recruiting, and basketball for Spartan Shadows. He has also written for Spartan Avenue, Basic Blues, and Hail WV.

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