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Michigan State basketball: Will avoiding a portal center ultimately doom Spartans?

Tom Izzo made a controversial choice to not add a center.



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

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo decided not to utilize the portal to add a center. Will that prevent MSU from big things?

To start, let me define what I see as a successful season for a Michigan State basketball team. Considering the standards that this program has set and the overall sustained excellence, I’d consider major success to be a Big Ten title and a trip to the Final Four.

Those were always going to be lofty expectations for the current team, but I don’t think it would have been impossible if a veteran center was picked up in the transfer portal.

When looking at a successful Tom Izzo-led team, you generally see a big man who can get buckets in the post on top of being a quality defender and rebounder. Just look at a guy like Matt Costello and think of how badly this team could use him. In his senior season, he averaged 10.7 points and 8.2 rebounds. Now, these aren’t eye-popping stats, but for all of those who watched, they can attest to the quality play of Costello. He was a player who did all of the little things, defended, rebounded well, and dove for loose balls, while also possessing a solid offense skillset.

Now I’m not saying the current Michigan State centers don’t do any of those things well, but none of them do it well enough to where they can really add value while being on the floor.

In one of my recent articles, I discussed why I thought Mady Sissoko was the most important player for the Spartans for the remainder of the season. I still think he is. Imagine if he could consistently put out performances like he did against Kentucky and Gonzaga. I believe if he was able to maintain that consistent level of play the Spartans would’ve been able to win their recent games against Illinois and Purdue — games where Sissoko tallied a combined five points. On top of the poor offensive performance in the last few games from Sissoko, the opposing big men have feasted.

Dain Dainja of Illinois when 8-for-12 from the floor while tallying 20 points against the Spartans, good for his second-highest scoring total of the season. I think all Michigan State fans were expecting a big game from Purdue center Zach Edey, but not a 32-point, 17-rebound game capped off with a game-winner. Opposing centers have faired well all season long offensively when playing Michigan State, with the Spartan bigs rarely out-scoring opponents.

The lackluster performance from the big men this season begs the question: why did Izzo not add a big man in the portal? Why was he content with starting a center who had averaged about five minutes per game for his entire career before this year? An open scholarship was there to be given.

In my opinion, the worst thing that would happen is that the big brought in turns out to not be worthy of a starting spot and adds minutes off of the bench. You had a scholarship to give, so why not use it on an obvious position of need?

Coming into this season, I was always skeptical of how much this team could accomplish, but right now it doesn’t seem like they’ll accomplish any of the goals that prior Spartan teams have become accustomed to achieving.

The guard play has been more than good enough to produce a run in March, in my opinion. AJ Hoggard has been playing exceptionally with some outstanding scoring coming from Tyson Walker as well.

Wing play has been adequate. Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks have struggled, with the latter barely getting any recent playing time after a decent start to the season. For the sake of this article, I will also consider Joey Hauser and Malik Hall wings due to the fact that I’ve been referring to the big men as the center position. Hauser has been fine, he has his games where he is great, then he has his games where he disappears. Hall has had his moments this season, but the lingering injury issues are also hampering the performance of the team.

Finally, the center position has been the odd man out all season. The rest of the positions have been adequate to good, but Michigan State is constantly getting outplayed in the center battle.

The problem with constantly getting outplayed at the center position isn’t the fact that the battle is being lost by small margins. Spartan centers have been getting killed in terms of production and it has really been killing the team. It is hard to win games when you play each offensive position four vs. five. Not to harp on Sissoko, but he doesn’t even have a go-to post move. He looks extremely uncomfortable any time he gets the ball in the post and does a little fadeaway to his weak side every single time. After Sissoko, it is extremely clear that Carson Cooper and Jaxon Kohler just aren’t ready to play valuable minutes in the physically demanding Big Ten.

This once again brings me back to my question: what was stopping Izzo from bringing in a big man? I think it’s important to reiterate that the worst-case scenario is that one of our scholarships is occupied for the season, the player rides the bench, we get the same result that we currently have, and the scholarship becomes available after the season.

The play at the center position has really been killing the Spartans in the recent stretch of Big Ten play and with the consistent product put out each game at that position it is hard to think that it will get any better.

Because of the poor play of the center position, it appears that the Spartans may be in a battle to make the NCAA Tournament this season.


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