The Spartans’ 74-65 loss to Duke on Tuesday highlighted the issues that have led to MSU’s poor start — but Tom Izzo sees a turnaround coming.
CHICAGO—After its season-opening loss to James Madison, No. 18 Michigan State went into Tuesday night’s Champions Classic showdown with No. 9 Duke looking to make a statement. Its performance in the United Center certainly made a statement, just not the kind the Spartans would’ve liked.
Tom Izzo’s squad suffered a 74-65 defeat to the Blue Devils, dropping it to 1-2 on the season. Worst of all, their performance highlighted all the things that have plagued these Spartans. Some of the issues are fixable, while others may linger throughout the season.
The obvious elephant in the room is Michigan State’s absurdly poor shooting. The Spartans were shooting just 6.5 percent from long range as a team through their first two games. (Six and a half percent!)
Against Duke, they made multiple 3-pointers for the first time this season. Still, they shot just 31.6 percent against the Blue Devils. Tyson Walker made half of the team’s 3s on a clean 3-of-5 mark, while the rest of the team shot 21.4 percent from deep.
“Eventually, when you have wide open and wide open and wide open 3s, you need them to go in. And they didn’t,” Izzo told the media.
“I can’t blame players for missing open shots,” he added later. “My job is to get them open shots, which I don’t think I did a good job of against James Madison. I think we did a better job tonight.”
But Izzo also recognizes that the loss to JMU may still be sitting with the Spartans.
“Is it in their head? Maybe it is,” Izzo said. “But we’re going to get it out of their head.”
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Sparty needs spacing
Michigan State ranked third nationally in 3-point shooting a year ago, but only two returning players shot 33.0 percent or better — Walker and Jaden Akins. Joey Hauser (46.1 percent) provided a lot of spacing as a stretch big, and Tom Izzo hasn’t been able to fill that role. None of the incoming freshmen who have cracked the rotation help much here, either.
The lack of spacing has made things more difficult offensively for everyone, namely Akins, Malik Hall and AJ Hoggard. All three can stretch the floor, but they’re at their best attacking the rim. That is much more difficult with a crowded paint, and the trio’s collective efficiency has suffered. Akins and Hoggard combined to shoot 5-of-19 (26.3 percent) from the field.
Michigan State can’t win with those two being so inefficient. That was something Hoggard told the team in the locker room, per Izzo.
It also hurts that they can’t play off a reliable big man. Five-star freshman Xavier Booker was the crown jewel of this recruiting class, yet he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor. Izzo played him just five minutes in each of the losses to James Madison and Duke, and he only saw 15 against Southern Indiana.
“He just has to keep getting stronger,” Izzo explained. “That’s going to take some time, as it does for a lot of big guys.”
That leaves Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper to handle all the minutes inside. Neither will be mistaken for a threat in the low post. Instead, they each provide rebounding and rim protection, further clogging the paint.
On the bright side, Walker has been able to maintain his effectiveness and efficiency thanks to his ability to create his own shot off the bounce. He almost singlehandedly carried the team to a win over JMU, and he got the Spartans back into the game against Duke.
Walker carrying the burden
Unfortunately for Michigan State, Walker is the only one who has been able to make things happen for himself. Akins and Hoggard can make plays on the move, and Hall can around the basket, but they struggle to create outside the structure of the offense. Michigan State needs someone to step up and help mitigate the poor spacing.
The freshmen were supposed to bring that — and they still might.
Coen Carr is an electric athlete who has shown the ability to be a high-end defender and dangerous cutter. Still, his lack of shooting and ball-handling precludes him from filling the spacer role. Jeremy Fears has flashed that ability, though, and looks like he is the heir apparent to Walker’s lead guard role. On the other hand, his struggles with turnovers have limited his playing time.
It’s clear through three games that this Michigan State roster has some limitations — certainly more than expected coming into the season. But the team also has issues that can be corrected, and no coach is better at ironing out those issues than Izzo. He routinely has his teams peaking late in the season.
Even after the loss, Izzo expressed confidence that all of the team’s goals are still attainable.
“I think we’ve got a damn good team. I really do,” he declared. “We haven’t played very good, but we’re going to play good.”
Michigan State played a more complete game against Duke than it did in the opener. Coming into the season, the Spartans were expected by many to be a well-oiled machine given all they returned from last season. And yes, they’re behind where they want to be (and probably should be) three games into the year. But this is a group still learning about itself and how all its pieces best fit together.
“The world hasn’t ended,” Izzo joked. “We made some progress today.”