We enter finals week across the country (except apparently Minnesota, Wisconsin and Maryland) and follow it up with the holiday breaks. This means there will be an unfortunate drought of good, quality college basketball games for the next two and a half weeks. Which makes this as good a time as any to check in on our beloved Big Ten basketball programs and Wisconsin to see how they are doing this season.
We will begin this excuse to stop working and think about college basketball while your boss is on a vacation with a discussion about Michigan State.
7-4 (1-1 in B1G play) - Torvik rankings as of Sunday evening (Michigan State is #48)
Wins: #15 Kentucky (neutral), #37 Penn State (Away), #39 Oregon (N), #78 Villanova (home), #101 Portland (semi-away), #206 Brown (H), #271 Northern Arizona (H)
Losses: #9 Gonzaga (N), #13 Alabama (N), #81 Northwestern (H), #83 Notre Dame (A)
Michigan State started off the season looking like they would be contenders for the Big Ten title. A close loss to Gonzaga was nothing to be ashamed about especially considering the terrible shooting conditions playing on a carrier and the double-overtime win over Kentucky was extremely promising. Although the win over Villanova doesn’t appear to mean as much as it would have in recent years, it was still a decent win over a P6 program. Unfortunately, they followed up that encouraging start with some injuries, a narrow escape from catastrophe in Portland, and then two losses to so-so teams in Notre Dame and Northwestern. This has tampered expectations down from likely B1G contender to possible bubble team.
Things I’ve Liked
Joey Hauser has finally began to look like the transfer star that the Spartans thought they were getting when he first transferred in from Marquette. Hauser has been in double figures in all but two games and is shooting 42.9% from three.
Playing increased minutes this season, Tyson Walker has continued to show his a good shooting stroke but has also demonstrated excellent distribution with a very good assist to turnover ratio.
AJ Hoggard is getting just a ton of assists. A true distributor at point guard is something that many B1G teams are envious of and will serve Sparty well as we get into the grind of B1G play.
Things I Haven’t Liked
Inconsistency has been an issue for the Spartans early this year. Now some of that is due to Malik Hall being out as well as Jaden Akins missing some time, but even when we compare games with the same lineup options available there hasn’t been a consistent defensive effort.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams have almost always been excellent rebounding squads. This year’s team is not. In the past Izzo has used offensive boards as a way to steal extra possessions and grind Spartan opponents into the ground. In the past twenty years, only two Spartan teams come close to being as poor at offensive rebounding as this years squad: 2004 and 2017. That 2004 team went 18-12 in a really down year for the Big Ten (just 3 tournament teams including MSU). The 2017 version went 20-15. This year’s Big Ten is probably better than both of those years.
Depth. Sparty has just 10 scholarship players and two of them have been hurt at times this year. There is nothing wrong with having a 8 man rotation - but you have to have other options available off the bench to turn to when things aren’t clicking on offense or foul trouble becomes an issue or guys get tired. Izzo doesn’t have that this year and it has reared its ugly head a couple of times.
Malik Hall has been out with a foot injury and missed the PK85 as well as the trip to Notre Dame and the first two B1G games. He’s expected back before B1G play resumes. Based on MSU with and without Hall, I think we’ve all been greatly underestimating his defensive value.
Jaden Akins also missed the PK85 as well as the Notre Dame game but has been back for the past three games. He doesn’t quite look his usual self yet, but hopefully the extended break coming up will help him finish healing.
Schedule and What’s Left
Tom Izzo put forth a challenging out of conference schedule for the Spartans with five P6 teams and Gonzaga but with a 6-3 record in non-B1G games, Sparty has survived without torpedoing their NCAA tournament hopes and now has just two buy games left against Oakland and Buffalo to navigate before returning to Big Ten play.
Big Ten double plays against Purdue, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, Rutgers, Michigan, and Nebraska don’t do Sparty many favors: five of those teams have a dominant low post presence and I’m probably underrating Iowa’s Rebraca a bit by not including him on that list too. That’s an issue for a team that’s had issues with depth and rebounding. The bright side: the difficult schedule means that Sparty should have enough opportunities for resume boosting wins.
BoilerUp89’s Final Thoughts
The Kentucky win should play well down the road even if the Villanova one won’t end up being the feather in Michigan State’s cap that it would have been in recent years. The Notre Dame loss could come back to haunt Sparty and cancel out Kentucky though. The Irish have yet to beat another top 100 team and their lack of depth is going to mean they could pick up a lot of losses in a down ACC. Probably not to Louisville, but it is theoretically possible.
Despite a bit of a roller coaster start to the season so far, the path for Michigan State to hear their name called on Selection Sunday is pretty clear. Get to 10 conference wins and don’t lose to Oakland, Buffalo, or Minnesota at home. Because of who their double plays on the B1G schedule are, Michigan State isn’t going to be able to get to .500 in B1G play without getting quality resume boosting victories. As long as they don’t offset that with a bad loss, something like a 18-14 or 19-14 (10-10) Michigan State probably gets in with their schedule. Especially in a year where some of our usual multi-bid conferences (hello there Atlantic-10) aren’t likely to get multiple bids and there may be a few extra at-larges available. If Sparty wants to be real safe, going 11-9 should all but guarantee Izzo’s tournament streak continues.
I think it will be close, but I’d bet on Izzo if I had to make a prediction.
Other Expert Opinions
Green Akers: Despite a 7-4 overall record, things have gone about as well as could have been expected. I had low expectations for this season - make the tournament (still very doable) and see progression from the players such that next year’s gaudy recruiting class gives you a shot for a national title. Noncon wins over Kentucky, Villanova and Oregon should more than cover for bad losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern, but they’ll still probably need at least 12 league wins to feel safe.
Their biggest problem has been Izzo’s decision to roll into the year with 9 scholarship players, which has left them zero margin for error or injury, and the injury has already happened. Jaden Akins missed a couple weeks and is still getting back in the swing of things, and Malik Hall won’t be back for a couple more weeks yet. Joey Hauser’s redemption arc is complete, as he’s now a plus player both ways giving them 35+ minutes a game in Hall’s absence, but their barometer is point AJ Hoggard. His much-improved shooting paired with his existing driving ability and rugged defense make him capable of taking over games, but he also has the turnover DNA that seems to be a feature of many of Izzo’s best players. Whether they make the tourney or not, Hoggard’s development, plus that of Akins, Pierre Brooks, and their three freshmen, will set their ceiling for what could be Izzo’s last window for a second title.
MaximumSam: I was higher than most on Sparty coming into the season. With so much uncertainty around the conference, especially in the backcourts, I put a lot of weight into them having two experienced point guards to run the show. That has been important - they have navigated a very difficult early schedule and looked very good at times, including in their win over Kentucky and tight loss to the Zags.
But the team was extremely thin coming into the season, and the fear was any sort of injury could make things go south fast. And what do you know, Malik Hall is out, and Jaden Akins has played sparingly. That’s led to them essentially putting out five guys who can play plus three freshmen who aren’t ready. I’m still high on them if they can get healthy, but these weird foot injuries seem to be a problem with them, and who knows how healthy they can get.
What is Michigan State’s ceiling this year?
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National champions baby!
Could still be in the running for B1G champions
Is your boss on vacation this week?
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Yes and I’m "working"
No but I’m "working" anyway
Finish the sentence... Michigan State will
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make the NCAA tournament
miss the NCAA tournament
I have a much more specific prediction that I’ll tell you about in the comments