The #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2, 5-1) will take on the Michigan State Spartans (8-4, 2-4) in a game circled by fans and media alike heading into the season. MSU has struggled so far in conference play, however, which gives the matchup a slightly less hyped feel.
The Spartans are always daunting and we went to our friends at The Only Colors to provide some deep insight into what’s going on in East Lansing. Thanks to Sam Tyler for helping us out!
1) Michigan State have lost two stalwarts in Cassius Winston & Xavier Tillman from last season. How successfully have their roles been replaced and what is this team still missing that those two had?
The simple answer is: not well at all.
The longer answer runs something like this: heading into the season the hope was that each all-time great Spartan would be replaced by committee, with various aspects of their respective production, leadership, and on-court impact being distributed to different players stepping into new or expanded roles.
Winston was ostensibly supposed to be replaced by Mark “Rocket” Watts at the point guard - a talented scoring guard who had defended excellently down the stretch of last season, but who needed to change his mindset to adopt a distribution first (or at least second) approach. Supporting Watts, Aaron Henry (as a play-making wing), Foster Loyer (as a hopefully-improved reserve guard), and freshman AJ Hoggard (a freshman point guard in need of a physical transformation and improved defensive play), were all expected to play roles as lead guards and offensive initiators. Henry, Watts, the now-healthy Josh Langford, Gabe Brown, and Joey Hauser were all expected to help replace Winston’s shot-making and three-point prowess.
Tillman was to be replaced by Hauser, Marcus Bingham, Jr., Julius Marble, Thomas Kithier, and raw-but-talented freshman Mady Sissoko. While none of these players are in the same zip-code as Tillman individually, the idea was that together they could present enough consistent energy, and a composite defender-offensive-contributor of some sort.
Neither experiment has gone well... at all. Watts has been moved off of point guard duties, and has been replaced by AJ Hoggard, who has been solid on both ends (particularly defensively) and to a lesser degree by Foster Loyer (who has come out of nowhere to wind up as a viable albeit flawed reserve guard). Watts has had an abysmal season on both ends of the court, and has not even been able to play his score-first game to any great effect. The center position has largely been a mess all season. Hauser has not lived up to his billing as an all-universe offensive player (his shooting has been inconsistent and his passing has not lived up to expectations) and his physical limitations as a lateral-mover and his lack of length have left him consistently exposed on the defensive end of the court (but hey, at least he rebounds well!). Kithier, the least physically talented and skilled big has had the starting job all season, and has rounded into a solid player (the problem is that he should be a reserve and not a twenty-minute per game guy) - Bingham jr, Marble, and Sissoko have all had moments where they have played well, but none have been consistent on either end, let alone on both ends of the court.
2) Aaron Henry is a do-it-all wing for the Spartans and was assigned MVP in MSU’s two conference wins by KenPom. What does he bring this team when he’s at his best?
Henry is unequivocally the best player on the team, on both ends of the court; and I say this despite Henry’s comically woeful three-point shooting to start the season (his career percentage was around 35 percent heading into the season, and he has started the year 9-35 from distance because... of course). While his three-point shooting has begun to regress to his ‘true-mean’ in conference play (he is 6-16 for 37.5 percent in conference play), his offensive game is predicated on his solid handle, post-game, interior finishing, and his excellent passing (particularly in and around the paint). Henry has scored double-figures every game of the season after the opener, and his production generally comes at important moments.
Henry’s real excellence, however, is on the defensive end of the court. After being a solid, if unspectacular, defender (on and off-ball) during his first two seasons, Henry has blossomed into one of the best individual defenders in the league (and probably one of the top-25 or so individual defenders in the nation). He had a few sub-par defensive performances in Michigan State’s three-game slide to open conference play, but he has generally been truly outstanding both on and off-ball and has begun translating his excellent footwork, length, activity, and competitiveness into the kind of impact plays that will butter his bread in the pre-draft process this summer: Henry is now averaging a shade over 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, and will have nights where he trends towards six or eight “stocks” (steals + blocks) per game. At times, he is just a game-breaker on defense.
3) So far this season, Tom Izzo has played a deep rotation with 12 guys getting 5+ minutes per game. Is this an instance where Izzo is searching for something or does he like what guys towards the bottom of the rotation bring on a night-to-night basis?
The rotation has been a mystery to many of us who have followed and covered the Spartans for any period of time. Izzo seems insistent on not shortening the rotation, but refuses to give major minutes to his most promising and highest-ceiling players; instead, Izzo has focused on giving as many minutes as possible to the seemingly-steady guys. In short, Izzo is fighting against the need to revise his plans for the season, despite mounting evidence that he must do so immediately. Sissoko and Bingham, Jr. are the only bigs on MSU’s roster that protect the paint and deter or block shots at the rim, and yet they have played the fewest minutes of the bigs this season (along with Julius Marble). Joey Hauser should, at this point, probably be moved to a smaller role, with more minutes given to Malik Hall (who has been a top-three player for the Spartans this year on both ends, and simply needs to play more).
When Izzo made the switch to get AJ Hoggard into the starting line-up, it was the first glimmer of hope for the season and shows that Izzo will not stubbornly ignore ALL evidence of needed changes. Frankly, this has been Izzo’s and his staff’s worst coaching job in a long time - the staff (collectively) have mismanaged the roster, butchered plenty of games, and generally been late to make adjustments.
4) Joey Hauser was a big-time transfer win for the Spartans. How has he performed based on expectations?
As I mentioned earlier, Hauser has underperformed based on expectations (mine maybe most of all). Coming into the season, Hauser was expected to be a three-point sniper, a capable three-level scorer, a vastly improved defender, and, importantly, a crucial passing-hub for the offense. Instead he has shot well below his ‘true-mean’ (you can tell that he should be shooting north of 40 percent from three-point range, but he is constantly rushing shots, failing to hold his follow-through, not organizing his lower body to transfer energy properly, and sundry other shooting-mechanics issues), and has generally proved to be an inefficient scorer in conference play, where he has largely been overwhelmed on both ends (outside of his heroic and majestic offensive outburst against Wisconsin - one of the few games where Aaron Henry played poorly this season).
On defense he has largely been a disaster outside of his rebounding, which has been very good. He cannot stay in front of his man on the perimeter, gets hung up on screens, often misses help assignments, and has provided little to no resistance in the post - failing to deny deep post position, and failing to really bother whoever posts against him. His lack of length and footspeed have shown up in every single game, and appear to be ceiling-limiting features of his physical profile to a degree that I, for one, did not anticipate at all.
5) Finally, who ya got and why?
I really love this Iowa team (despite Keegan Murray not getting enough minutes for my liking), but I do think they are beatable - a number of teams have shown ways that you can hurt Iowa (on both ends of the court). Of course I in no way think that Michigan State will be able to execute on either end for 40 minutes in order to actually follow-through on those potential weaknesses. Last year, Izzo could stick Tillman on Garza and at least hope to make him inefficient. This year (as evidenced in MSU’s most recent epic collapse against Purdue, a far lesser opponent), even if the reserve bigs in green and white play well, the odds are high that the coaching staff will sabotage their performance and play the wrong line-ups for far too long (Izzo played Hauser at center for most of the final 10 minutes against Purdue, which guaranteed that Trevion Williams could complete his dominating 25-point second half with a game winner over the short-armed Hauser after he got hung up on a screen under the basket on a base-line out-of-bounds play...). In short, I have Iowa in a likely dominant performance.
Let’s say: Iowa 85 MSU 70
Dark times here in East Lansing...
Thanks again to Sam, who you can find on Twitter @SFLGT. The Only Colors is @TheOnlyColors on the dreaded bird app. They did a deep dive on how to defend Luka Garza here. Finally, you can find my answers to his questions here.