Michigan State basketball ended the weekend at the PKI with a 2-1 record. What did we learn about the Spartans?
Whew. That was close.
While you never want to give up a double-digit lead late in a game, it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture: that was an actual home game for Portland who took UNC to the brink and beat Villanova by double digits. After a brutal six-game stretch (and one freebie), Michigan State basketball is 5-2 overall with losses to No. 6 Gonzaga and a 6-1 Alabama team that beat No. 1 North Carolina in a four-overtime thriller.
This MSU team also went 2-1 for the tourney without Malik Hall or Jaden Akins.
That last point is key because it freed up big minutes for Pierre Brooks who took full advantage with 15 points on seven shots, going 5-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 from deep. He looks like the guy that won Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan and should contribute valuable scoring depth for the Spartans this year.
Tyson Walker led the Spartans in scoring with 16 points and five rebounds, and Joey Hauser had 14 points, seven rebounds, and added four assists. AJ Hoggard struggled in the first half but finished just one assist shy of a double-double recording 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting, three rebounds, and nine assists.
MSU will finish up the month of November with a true road game in South Bend against 5-1 Notre Dame. So far they have 4-5 wins that will be considered quad-1 or quad-2 by the committee with a good chance for another on Wednesday.
Battle-tested feels like an understatement.
Everyone said Tom Izzo was crazy to embark on this schedule, especially with this roster. It turns out this roster was better than anticipated and this schedule will wind up benefiting MSU, not only on Selection Sunday but in preparing for the grind of the Big Ten schedule and beyond.
There were some other pleasant surprises as well:
- Mady Sissoko isn’t really a surprise at this point but we also shouldn’t take his importance for granted. In this game he was efficient with 11 points on 4-5 from the floor, however, he was limited to 24 minutes because of foul trouble. He’s been engaged, strong, and active in every game he’s played, shooting almost 60 percent from the floor, and has improved his free throw shooting to a respectable 65 percent. And, perhaps most importantly, is only averaging 2.8 personal fouls per game despite the four fouls against Portland.
- Tre Holloman is looking like an elite defender as a freshman and is comfortable facilitating with the ball in his hands. Izzo clearly decided after the 2020-21 season that he would never be short on primary ball handlers again. He now has four players that can handle the duties in Walker, Hoggard, Holloman, and Akins with Jeremy Fears already signed to next year’s class.
- Jason Whitens is a good energy player off the bench that can defend, get rebounds and do the dirty work. This adds depth that most fans weren’t aware of because of his season-ending injury early last season.
- Jaxon Kohler struggled to score in this game but had some great hustle plays. He reeled in seven rebounds against an extremely athletic Alabama team and shot 50 percent from the field in the Oregon game. He’ll continue to improve and will serve well as a backup to Sissoko with a very different play style.
- Finally, Carson Cooper has looked promising in limited minutes. He had two big dunks on excellent passes from Hauser and Brooks and should be very helpful in Big Ten play. You can definitely see why Izzo brought him in.
While Hall is projected to be out until around Christmas, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t play until the Buffalo or Nebraska games as a precaution since the schedule lightens up for the three weeks after the game at Penn State. They’ll want to make sure he’s healthy for the main portion of Big Ten play.
Akins could be ready for the Notre Dame game but will need to string together a few healthy practices before Izzo unleashes the explosive guard. Even if Akins plays Wednesday, we will see a heavy dose of Brooks, Holloman, and possibly even Whitens.
This team is better than most people thought and strong guard-play wins in college basketball. The Big Ten is acquitting itself well in non-conference play so there will be ample quality wins available to build the Spartans’ resume for March.
It’s a long season but so far, so good.