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Michigan State basketball: Similarities between 2015 Final Four team and 2022-23 team

These teams are more similar than you may think.



Michigan State basketball
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Michigan State basketball team that made a Final Four and this year’s squad have some interesting similarities.

Watching Michigan State basketball make an improbable run to the Sweet 16 as a 7-seed has made me think of another Spartan team that had a similar run.

While it’s tough to call two wins a run, when you’re a 7-seed, your odds to make it to the Sweet 16 are lower than most. They usually make it this far after upsetting a 2-seed but only four 7-seeds since 2005 have made the elite Eight, according to our own Tyler Dutton. One of those four teams happened to be 2014-15 Michigan State basketball.

That’s only one of many similarities I found between these two teams.

Here are more that I found interesting, and you might, too. Maybe a Final Four is on the horizon?

  • A senior guard who can take over games in an instant

What did the 2014-15 team have that teams need in March in order to make a run? A dominant veteran guard who can take over a game. Travis Trice pieced together a heck of a run in the NCAA Tournament to lead the Spartans to a Final Four, scoring 15 points in an underwhelming opener, 23 points against the No. 2 seed, 24 points in the Sweet 16 against the 3-seed, 17 in the Elite Eight against the 4-seed, and then 16 in the Final Four.

This year’s team has a dominant veteran guard who can take over a game, too. His name is Tyson Walker. He scored 12 in an underwhelming opener before scoring 23 against the No. 2 seed. Does that mean he’ll score 24 against Kansas State and then 33 combined in the Elite Eight and Final Four? Not necessarily, but the two have similar take-over-game potential.

Plus, they’re both basically similar in stature (Trice is 6-1, 175 pounds; Walker is 6-1, 180 pounds).

  • An aggressive junior guard who played up-tempo, was a terrific passer

Back in 2014-15, Denzel Valentine was polarizing as a complementary guard to Trice. He was a guard who loved to play with tempo and made plenty of mistakes because of it and the team kind of went as he went. He averaged 14.5 points, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 turnovers per game while shooting 44 percent from the field.

AJ Hoggard is just that for this year’s team. He’s an aggressive guard who complements Walker and is a terrific facilitator. Hoggard is also known for making mistakes and being polarizing. Michigan State goes as he goes. He’s averaging 12.5 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.5 turnovers while shooting 41 percent from the field.

Hopefully Hoggard has the senior year that Valentine did (without the MTSU loss).

Credit goes to Spartan Shadows’ own Anthony Garvert for this one.

  • Not a super productive three-man freshman class

In 2014-15, Michigan State brought in Javon Bess, Marvin Clark Jr., and Tum Tum Nairn. Two bigs and a point guard. Combined, they averaged 9.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Not crazy productive, but they each had their moments.

This year’s team? Pretty much the same. The class is two bigs and a point guard. None of them have had a crazy impact but have all shown flashes. Combined, Carson Cooper, Jaxon Kohler, and Tre Holloman average 5.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists. Not quite as productive, but basically the same.

  • Barely earned a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament

That 2014-15 team was 12-6 in conference play and earned the 3-seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a double-bye. They were tied with two other teams in third place (Iowa, Purdue) and needed to win their final two games over the Boilermakers and at Indiana in order to secure a double-bye.

Michigan State needed to get hot at the end of the 2022-23 season in order to attain a double-bye as well and the Spartans had everything go their way in the final weekend to earn a 4-seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

  • No dominant center

What’s that? Michigan State didn’t have a dominant center in 2014-15 and still found a way to make a run in the NCAA Tournament? See, it does happen.

In 2014-15, Matt Costello acted as the team’s center along with Gavin Schilling and neither were ‘dominant’ by any means. Costello averaged 7.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks while Schilling was at 5.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks. It wasn’t until Costello’s senior year that he really became an All-Big Ten caliber center.

Mady Sissoko is this year’s center and he’s not dominant either — although he has shown flashes of being really good (they’ve only been flashes). He’s averaging 5.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks per game while Kohler is at 3.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks. Cooper is averaging 1.6 points, 0.9 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks. No dominance in sight.

  • Three guards, veteran forward leading the way

What did the 2014-15 team have that set them apart from some post-heavy teams? Three really good guards and a veteran forward leading the way. Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Bryn Forbes led the way and all shot the heck out of the ball. Trice shot 37 percent from deep, Denzel 42 percent, and Forbes was at 43 percent. The forward, Branden Dawson, was a solid rebounder (6.3 per game) and averaged 11.9 points per game. These were the four leaders of that squad.

As for this year’s team, the Spartans are led by three really good guards and a veteran forward (sound familiar). All three guards can shoot somewhat well (AJ Hoggard being the exception). Jaden Akins and Walker both shoot 41 percent from deep and Hoggard is at 32 percent (two over 40 percent and one under, just like 2014-15). The forward is Joey Hauser who is a solid rebounder (7.1 per game) and averages 14.3 points per game.

Eerily similar.

  • Really good 3-point shooting teams

What’s the strength of this year’s Michigan State basketball team? Three-point shooting. What about 2014-15? That’s right, it was 3-point shooting.

In 2014-15, Michigan State shot 38.5 percent from deep, making nearly 300 as a team.

This season, Michigan State is shooting 39.5 percent from deep, making 232.

  • Known for defense, average identical points per game

That 2014-15 team was known for its defense, allowing just 63 points per game. They were your typical Tom Izzo-coached team that harped on defense and rebounding. The same goes for this year’s team. While this year’s Spartans allow about 67 points per game, the end of the season ballooned that average (especially the Iowa game).

As for the offense, the 2014-15 team averaged 71.1 points per game, ranking 81st in the country. This year’s team averages 70.2 points per game which is 225th in the nation — clearly we are playing in different times since 70.2 would be somewhere around 100th in 2014-15.

  • Shaky start to the season, including a loss at Notre Dame

Remember the gauntlet that Michigan State basketball had to start this season? Well, it was equally as gauntlet-like in 2014-15. And the results were similar.

To start the 2014-15 season, Michigan State went 5-3 and played a tough schedule. The Spartans faced Duke, Marquette, Kansas, and Notre Dame. They lost to the Fighting Irish on the road and dropped from No. 19 out of the rankings.

This year, Michigan State went 5-4 to start and played basically everyone. They faced Gonzaga, Kentucky, Villanova, Oregon, and Notre Dame. They lost on the road to Notre Dame and dropped from No. 20 out of the rankings.

  • Projected to lose in the Round of 32

Both teams were favored in their first-round matchups as 7-seeds over 10-seeds. Michigan State beat Georgia 70-63 in 2014-15 and this year’s team beat USC 72-62. Even the margin of victory was similar.

But both were projected to lose the next round to an up-and-coming 2-seed. Then it was Virginia and this year, it was Marquette. Obviously a 2-seed was going to be projected to beat a 7-seed in the second round, but the Spartans weren’t expected to pull off the upset by many experts. Yet they did. They beat Virginia 60-54 in 2014-15 and Marquette 69-60 this year.

  • Favored over 3-seed after upsetting a 2-seed

Remember when I said it was obvious that a 2-seed would be favored over a 7-seed in the second round? Well, it’s equally as shocking that a 7-seed would be favored over a 3-seed in the Sweet 16.

The 2014-15 team was favored over a 3-seed Big 12 team (Oklahoma) and this year’s team is favored over a 3-seed Big 12 team (Kansas State). Not common, but very similar. This is what stuck out to me in terms of similarities that kind of inspired this article (along with the Walker/Trice comparison).

  • Road to the Final Four could be the exact same

The road that the 2014-15 Michigan State basketball team faced in its Final Four run was against a 10-seed from a power conference in round one, a 2-seed in the second round, a 3-seed from the Big 12 in the Sweet 16, and a 4-seed in the Elite Eight. The Spartans eventually lost to 1-seeded Duke in the Final Four who they lost to earlier in the year in the Champions Classic.

This year’s team faced a 10-seed from a power conference in round one, a 2-seed in the second round, a 3-seed from the Big 12 in the Sweet 16, and it could face a 4-seed (Tennessee) in the Elite Eight. If they win the next two, the Spartans could also face a 1-seed (Alabama) in the Final Four. Guess what? Michigan State lost to Alabama earlier in the year in the PK85 (credit to Eric Cameron for this find).

Oh, and the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games were played in the state of New York in 2014-15. That’s right, they’re in New York for this year’s Sweet 16 and potential Elite Eight.

Yes, I went deep down the rabbit hole to find all of these similarities. I’m not proud (I actually am).

Writer, co-owner of Spartan Shadows. Michigan State and college football expert at FanSided and formerly of The Detroit News. Expert on all things Michigan State. Connor Muldowney has written about Michigan State since graduating from the university with a degree in journalism back in 2013. Ten years of experience as a Michigan State writer/reporter.