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2021-22 Michigan State Basketball Autopsy

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The sports season equivalent of death from high cholesterol

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Michigan State vs Davidson
A late first round draft grade? Really???
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, Michigan State rode its reputation and a strong showing in a blisteringly difficult nonconference slate to a soaring high-water mark. For the second straight year, they wilted in the furnace of the Big Ten and settled amongst the middling class, claimed enough of the conference’s plentiful big game pelts to get into the tournament, and promptly excused themselves against a true blue blood with better talent.

There was never a point this season when MSU did anything to adjust my impression of their ceiling, formed in early-season losses to Kansas and Baylor: a solid tournament team without the difference-maker Izzo’s conference winners and Final Four fixtures always have.

Thus, gifted with one of the most forgiving opening slates to conference play I’ve ever seen, MSU did not take full advantage of that to firm up their rotation, or even to win all of those games. Instead, they needed late escapes over the likes of Minnesota and Maryland, and turned in a horrendous home effort against Northwestern for the second year in a row.

There were high points - it was hard not to feel some sense of big-picture hope after locking up Johnny Davis and knocking off Wisconsin in the Kohl, and they probably played close to an A+ game defeating Purdue in their only regular season matchup. But for each of those games, there were four or five disjointed efforts in which two players came to play and the others just came.

That flaw in the team’s makeup showed itself repeatedly throughout the season in one way above all others: constantly, a player had a game that made you think ‘ok, well maybe HE is the one who can lead us,’ only for that guy to immediately recede right back into the background. Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard, Marcus Bingham, Julius Marble - they all had moments that suggested greatness, but could never even string two of those games together, let alone become season-long, dependable options.

Brown and Bingham have both declared their intention to move on without using the COVID year, though neither has an obvious NBA future. Much-maligned PF Joey Hauser hasn’t said anything yet; if his outstanding performance in the NCAAT was a genuine corner being turned, I would swallow all my vitriol for him. Despite hitting an obvious freshman wall, Max Christie is testing the draft waters after starting every game this season.

Tom Izzo is 67 years old and currently has a roster with zero returning All-Big Ten players and zero five star players on it unless Christie withdraws from the draft (which, to be fahhhr, I think he probably will). He’s also plainly not a fan of the transfer portal, even though he’s brought a couple of important players in that way of late. Michigan State’s recruiting class is, as of right now, two decent prospects who are unlikely to be the instant impact guys this roster sorely lacks.

That said, Izzo’s comments over the course of this season do not sound like a guy who’s planning an eminent retirement, to the point where I’ve recalibrated my suspicion of recent years that he would hang it up when his son Steven is done with the team (Steven will be a 4th year senior in 2022-23, so who knows when that will actually be). Longtime assistant Dwayne Stephens, after 19 years at Izzo’s side, took the Western Michigan job, which suggests he knows he has a few years to get some head coaching experience before Izzo’s job is open. Izzo hasn’t made a hire yet, but it’s been a while since he ventured outside his own circle for an assistant when given the chance.

Izzo has heavily invested in revamping his guard group over the last season-plus following the Watts/Loyer disaster, so the backcourt, at least, has plenty of options and it’s not difficult to envision a return to elite play from that group. But this year’s Spartans were one of the worst rebounding outfits Izzo has ever sent out there, and until he draws solutions from the portal, there’s not much reason to think the ‘22-23 frontcourt will be even as good as it was this year.

Multiple times over the last couple seasons, I’ve found it unsettling how similar this program is starting to look to the end of the Mark Dantonio era in that there’s still a solid floor here, but the team has fallen far off from its peak, and doing things the same old way seems like an obvious way to never get back there. He has an assistant coach to hire and, even if Christie and Hauser both return, three open scholarships to fill. If Izzo wants to leave the fantastic edifice he’s built in better shape than Dantonio did his, this offseason needs to be a busy one.