The Wisconsin Badgers return to the Kohl Center on Friday for a second matchup with the Michigan State Spartans this season after beating their conference foes 70-57 in the first game of Big Ten play earlier this year.
Since then, there have been changes on both sides of the courts, which is why we invited Oren Basse from Only the Colors to ask and answer questions about both teams ahead of the key matchup.
Here are five questions about the Spartans that he graciously answered ahead of Friday’s game.
Q: Michigan State was highly perceived entering the season with a top-ten ranking. Since then, they’ve gone 12-7 this season, but have recently won three straight games. How would you judge their season through the first 19 games?
A: I will be honest and say I am disappointed in the season so far. MSU came into the season with aspirations of getting Izzo his second Natty this year. And then we lost our opener... to James Madison... at home. The losses to Duke and Zona on neutral courts were not as painful, but the 0-2 start to the Big Ten slate, games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, certainly were bothersome. Now losing some early games is tradition for MSU as Izzo famously schedules the nation’s toughest schedule year in and year out. But this year’s early season performance felt extra concerning.
All that said, it does feel like MSU has been turning a corner. It all started with the destruction of Baylor, and it looks like MSU has figured some things out. Making a run in March would not surprise me at all, but the hopes of a 1- or 2-seed in the tournament are out the window. And yeah, that does make things tougher.
Q: Four of Michigan State’s top five scorers are guards. Is this year’s team a more guard-dominant team and how do you expect them to match up against Wisconsin’s bigs?
A: I would not say “this year’s team” as last year’s team had the same starters at positions 1-3. The only change from that lineup is the promotion of Malik Hall to starter to replace Joey Hauser. But yes, this team is very much a guard-dominant team. And I will still make the claim that AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker compose among the best starting backcourt combos in the land.
The only benefit this year’s team has compared to last year’s, in terms of the frontcourt, would be the number of bodies we can send out there. Last year’s starting PF, Hauser, was, oh let’s say, “not good” at defending. Malik Hall has definitely been a step up in that regard. The centers, Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper, are both a year older and a year better. They are both tall and are above-average rebounders and shot-blockers. Jaxon Kohler has recently come back from injury and, though he is still ramping up, is another body that can be thrown in there. And I need to mention freak athlete Coen Carr who is going to get a block or two that you never saw coming.
Basically, MSU has options this year that they did not have last year, and Izzo can tinker with the lineup based on the flow of the game. If MSU can get a lead, they may play a smaller lineup, even playing three guards and SF Jaden Akins along with just one big. If it’s closer and Wisconsin is doing much of its damage inside, they can send out more height and shot-blocking capability.
Q: Michigan State has the best defense in the Big Ten statistically, allowing only 39.4 percent of opponent shots to hit and 30.8 percent of opponent threes to hit. How important has the defense been to their success this season?
A: There is definitely a lot to like about this year’s defense, especially since January started (plus that Baylor game). In the past, MSU was always known for being a top rebounding team. This year’s version is not that, but they are playing unbelievable on-ball defense. The perimeter defenders - Hoggard, Walker, Akins, and Tre Holloman - all excel in man-to-man and are all generating steals for the Spartans. And when they are not forcing turnovers, they are helping force the opponent into bad shots at the end of the shot clock.
One thing that they do still get caught doing a few times a game is not picking up the ball carrier until he has passed the three-point line. This sends the team into a panic where everyone collapses, then there is a kick-out pass, one or two swing passes, and then an open look from deep. And it does feel like someone on the other team always has a career day shooting the 3 against MSU, though I guess that isn’t really showing up in the stats.
Interiorly, the bigs are just good enough to use their height and wingspan, as well as their basketball IQ, to disrupt enough FGs by the opponent that it does not become an issue.
Tom Izzo does have a much harder defensive system to master than most other college coaches, but it does seem like this year’s team is really becoming proficient there right now.
Q: Who’s been the surprise, either positively or negatively, for the Spartans this season?
A: I will give you one of each. The negative, for me, has to be freshman Xavier Booker. He was one of the top recruits in the country, even being the No. 1 ranked player at one point in that recruiting cycle. I had predicted he would become the starting PF for this team by January 1. I was wrong. In some games, he does not even see the floor. He has not earned his coach’s trust yet; I would say it is mostly on the defensive side that he is struggling more. He does have the capability to step outside on offense and drain 3s, but he has not shown much of a low-post game in his limited action this year. Defensively, he has been losing his assignments frequently and getting caught out of position.
On the positive side, I would have said another freshman, Jeremy Fears, for his solid defensive performance early in his college career, but, unfortunately, he is out with an injury (gunshot wound) and I am betting he won’t be back this year. Instead, I will say super-senior Malik Hall. And this is extra surprising because maybe three weeks ago the majority of Spartan Nation was cursing him. However, in the past five games or so, he has finally started showing his potential on a consistent basis. We are usually scheming to get his scoring going on the first possessions of the game just to make sure we get “Good Malik”. His low-post scoring arsenal has really come around and he has his scoring average up in double-digits on the season now. On defense, he is holding his ground, often against bulkier players. His recent improvement has been the biggest factor in MSU’s turnaround this season.
Q: How does MSU pull off the win over Wisconsin this time around?
A: One theme that was prevalent in MSU’s early season struggles this year was the tendency to come out of the gate slow and allow the other team to jump out to an early lead. The Spartans were regularly looking at double-digit deficits before halftime and having to play catch-up. And by the time they drew even, somewhere between 10 and 5 minutes remaining in the game, they had run out of gas. Lately, they have not been guilty of this. MSU needs to come out strong and be the ones throwing the early punches. If they can do that, then they can stick to their script and pull out the road win.
Q: What’s your score prediction for the game?
A: I am feeling good about MSU’s direction right now. That said, Wisconsin is a good team and it is in Madison. So as much as I hate to say it, I will go with... MSU only winning by five. 77-72.
Thanks for having me. Good luck tomorrow, Badger Nation.