Michigan State Head Basketball Coach Tom Izzo is more than familiar with last season’s woes: mediocre point guard play, unstable rotations, poor shooting, lackluster defense and a nonexistent transition game. The list goes on —it’s old news from a season to forget in a year to forget.
But following Wednesday’s practice, Izzo took on the consistent tone he’s adopted all fall about football, the return of in-person classes and a sense of normalcy to recognize a refreshing feeling: excitement, even more so than the preseason usually brings.
“We shot the ball really well, we get up and down the court, we’re more athletic, we’re a better shooting team,” he said of the first couple weeks of practice. "I think we feel like we’re in a much better place."
Plenty of questions linger among new faces as they look to solve old problems with the season on the horizon. Izzo and several players shed some light on a few of the more intriguing aspects of the preseason and how they’re working out so far.
New rotation, new combinations
Michigan State struggled to find a clear-cut and consistent rotation in 2020’s disappointing campaign, a shortcoming Izzo pins directly on himself. Now, with new talent and a complete offseason behind them, there’s plenty of opportunity for this season’s rotation to be a cut above what it was last year.
Izzo said the rotation is roughly 10 deep at the moment with five to seven consistent players and one to two potentials in the mix. He added he’s looking to finalize it within the next two weeks as Michigan State’s Nov. 9 opener against Kansas at Madison Square Garden creeps closer.
Until then, the brunt of the attention will fall squarely on what develops at center and point guard. In regards to center, Izzo said senior forward Marcus Bingham Jr. has been “definitely in there more,” adding that junior forward Julius Marble has come into his own at the position as sophomore center Mady Sissoko continues to recover from a recent wrist injury.
In the backcourt, sophomore point guard A.J. Hoggard and junior point guard Tyson Walker are primed for what Izzo called a “quarterback controversy” in regards to who will be named the starter. Izzo noted both do things a little differently and didn’t allude to a set-in-stone starter but is intent on playing them together during certain stretches of the season.
Regardless of the starter and the frequency of two point guards on the floor at once, Izzo said he’s optimistic about how the position will play out this year between Hoggard, Walker and freshman guard Jaden Akins.
“When we’re pushing that ball with our point guards, there’s times that even I think we look good,” Izzo said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
While final decisions are yet to come, Izzo made sure to mention that he’ll take advantage of the versatility at hand and shift select players from position to position. Redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser and junior forward Malik Hall are his prime candidates to get more opportunities to handle the ball, with Izzo adding that he flipped Hauser from center to power forward to small forward—all in Wednesday’s practice.
The youth movement
Izzo doubled back to one name more than any other when talking to the media: freshman shooting guard Max Christie, the former five-star prospect out of Arlington Heights, Illinois. The excitement surrounding Christie has been consistent since he arrived in East Lansing and on Wednesday, Izzo indicated he’s more than lived up to it.
“I think you’re gonna be really impressed with Christie,” Izzo said. “He’s so much stronger and so much better defensively than he was when he came in. And I think that’s encouraging.”
The recognition isn’t just coming from the top. As a teammate, Bingham also praised Christie for his willingness to listen and aptitude for learning.
“(Christie) is one of those kids that picks up on everything,” he said. “If the coach is telling him to do something right, he’s gonna pick up on it fast.”
Bingham added Christie “without a doubt” has a chance to start despite his true freshman status. With Izzo bringing Christie consistent praise for his shooting, in particular, he appears primed to contribute early and often as a definite in the current rotation.
Christie wasn’t the only freshman to garner praise. Akins was a “surprise guy” for the team this summer and he’s continued to catch Izzo’s eye into the fall.
Izzo said Akins might be one of the best pure athletes on the team with his ability to drive and finish strong at the offensive glass turning heads throughout the program. While he’s hopeful he’ll bulk up by about 15 pounds, Izzo added he has the ability to be one of the team’s better defenders from the get-go.
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Freshman guard Pierre Brooks has also developed as a player and into Izzo’s good graces as the “strongest and toughest” of the three freshmen. Izzo said Brooks has shot well lately, something to keep an eye on as Izzo hints that two to three freshmen will factor into Michigan State’s early-season rotation.
Fruits of the summer
Izzo lamented the conditioning of the team at this point in the preseason but noted it’s a byproduct of a summer dedicated to getting stronger as opposed to becoming more fit.
“When we get tired, we’re not fighting through it yet,” Izzo said.
However, the summer’s work has paid off, most noticeably for Bingham and Hoggard, Izzo said. Bingham, now an admitted 7’0”, capitalized on his growth spurt with additional strength and finally completed an NBA Combine bench press test he’s longed to achieve. On the other hand, Hoggard dropped 20 pounds over the summer, something he knew had to do going into his freshman year.
“When I came in and things weren’t going the way I thought they were gonna go from the beginning, just playing-wise, just being a little sluggish, being a little slow,” Hoggard said. “I just knew that it was time for change and it was something I had to do to get myself better and help my guys on the court.”
Hoggard said he feels quicker and stronger, allowing him to focus on gradually reaching his potential on the court after fully recovering from a new procedure nearly one year ago. The change brought on by this summer’s regimen bode well with a fresh season and a chance to prove himself coming up quickly —just not as quick as he'd like it.
“These 30 days can’t come any faster,” Hoggard said. “I’m ready to get out there and get to war with my brothers.”
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