Michigan State basketball got some great news on Wednesday, but let’s pump the brakes on the ‘national title or bust’ talk.
Michigan State basketball received two monumental pieces of positive news on Wednesday with Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard announcing their return to East Lansing. This, combined with Malik Hall’s return to go along with zero de-commitments from an elite recruiting class, tops off a near-perfect offseason for Tom Izzo. The Spartans will roll into next season as Big Ten favorites, with national title aspirations.
Naturally, I have to be the wet blanket to try and calm people down.
I get it. It’s May 31. We miss our Spartans and we’re desperate for any piece of positive news to get us through this time of year. But I’m here to tell you that this upcoming season is not “national championship or bust.” You don’t have to start looking at hotels in Phoenix just yet.
Michigan State’s offseason, while impeccable, does not necessarily guarantee a raised ceiling for this group. It increases the chances that they can become champions, sure. But success is not linear. The Spartans are primed to make that leap. But they still have to prove it.
There’s so much attention (rightfully so) on what Michigan State basketball brings back to next year’s roster. Has anyone thought about what they lost? Joey Hauser remains a criminally underrated player in the eyes of Michigan State fans. There were long stretches this season when Hauser was the Spartans’ best offensive player. Furthermore, the skills he brought to the table do not exactly have a clear replacement. His 46 percent shooting from three is a huge loss. Keep in mind, this wasn’t 46 percent on one attempt per game. Hauser took and made the most 3-pointers for the Spartans in 2023.
Yes, MSU has other shooters. What they do not have though, is a forward that has the ability to step out and consistently knock down jumpers. Maybe that guy becomes Hall or Xavier Booker. They’ll have to prove it. Michigan State was able to shoot its way out of stagnant offense at times last year. Having one less shooter on the floor makes that more challenging.
How about the guy passing to the shooters?
Let’s talk about Hoggard for a second. While he was fantastic in the loss against Kansas State, let’s remember that wasn’t the same guy we saw night in and night out. He has to find a way to be more consistent and bring that same energy and focus. The offense hinges on his ability to get into the paint and make good decisions.
While we’re on the subject of the Kansas State loss, how about the defense? Michigan State started off the year with defense as its identity. The Spartans finished the year having it be their Achilles heel. After getting some of that intensity back against USC and Marquette, it fell flat against the Wildcats. There were signs their defensive prowess was leaking down the stretch, and Markquis Nowell exposed it.
After being ranked as high as No. 1 in defensive efficiency in KenPom, Michigan State finished the year 42nd. If the Spartans have championship aspirations, it starts at that end of the floor.
How about those freshmen? I have very high hopes for all of them. It’s impossible to not be excited about the best recruiting class in school history. The fact is, we just don’t know. We don’t know how these guys will adjust to playing at this level. We don’t know how well they can play together with the existing roster. We don’t even know how much they’ll play. There are a lot of mouths to feed when it comes to minutes. For Michigan State to reach that elite level though, they’re probably going to need one of those guys to become an impact player.
Relying on freshmen is scary. But the Spartans don’t need a superstar. Akins, Hoggard, and Tyson Walker can play that role. What MSU needs is for one of those four to do 2-3 things in a game that others can’t. Whether it be through sheer athleticism, basketball awareness, or old-fashioned hustle, the Spartans are going to need that little extra “oomph” that they didn’t have last year.
The fact remains that Michigan State was an above-average team in 2023. The Spartans had a nice run in the NCAA tournament that made the season feel much better than it was. It’s easy to forget now, but MSU entered the NCAA tournament as a 7-seed at 19-12, coming off a 10-point loss to sub-.500 Ohio State. How different would things feel if MSU had not made it out of the opening weekend? There would still be plenty of optimism with the roster. But it’s a reminder of how much the NCAA tournament can change your perception of a group.
We can play the “what if” game all summer with Michigan State and that Sweet 16 loss. It might have led to a Final Four and maybe even a birth in the title game. We can all agree, though, that it would not have ended in a national title. Michigan State was not going to beat Connecticut. That gap is what gives me pause.
There’s work to be done for Tom Izzo and this roster. They are champions of nothing as of now. The good news is, as of Wednesday, they got the best possible head start on becoming one.
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