On the floor of Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, Big Ten Media Days were in full swing.
Athletes and coaches were peppered with questions by a roaming band of beat writers, television personalities and national affiliates in their allotted one-on-one, 30-minute sessions. Reporters crisscrossed the hardwood to move from one scrum to another, scribbling frantically in a notebook or listening intently to anything and everything Big Ten basketball.
It’s the first time plenty of people will be getting formal access to the subjects they cover. And for the athletes and coaches, who are either giving a game smile to one final question or slouching back in their seats, it appears exhausting.
Still, this is the preseason.
There’s plenty of excitement to be shared about a season yet to begin. When asked about junior guard Tyson Walker's addition to a point guard situation that cratered in Michigan State’s disappointing 2020-21 season, senior forward Gabe Brown shakes his head and smiles slyly, the first spark in a line of routine questions.
“He's brought a lot to the table,” he said with a pleasant emphasis. “As you all saw (at MSU's first open practice), a lot to the table.”
Less than a week later, Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo held court at the Breslin Center to discuss all things Michigan State, be it football, in-person classes and, yes, basketball.
Again, another question about the point guards. And more of the same tempered praise surrounding two known — but not yet proven — quantities.
“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.”
Quarterbacks, New York City cab drivers, floor generals — these are some of the names used to describe Walker and sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard, the two point guards holding the hopes and full potential of Michigan State men’s basketball’s 2021-22 campaign in their hands.
In one corner, there's Hoggard. A Coatesville, Pennsylvania native, who played half of his high school basketball career at Archbishop Carroll in Philadelphia before transferring to Huntington Prep in Huntington, West Virginia. After his freshman year at MSU, he’s the one holdover at the position after it became a revolving door for lackluster production and led then-junior guard Foster Loyer and then-sophomore guard Rocket Watts to transfer to Davidson College and Mississippi State, respectively.
In the other corner, Walker. The Westbury, New York native and Christ the King alum played two years at Northeastern University before transferring to MSU in April, averaging 18.8 points per game with 4.8 assists to boot on his way to a Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, title and CAA Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Already a fast talker, Hoggard goes even faster when talking about his 20-pound weight loss this summer, growing into the position and the guy he’s supposed to be competing with, Walker. It’s a relationship that goes deep, all the way back to long weekends on the road, grinding the youth travel basketball circuit up and around the East Coast.
“He’s from New York, I’m from Pennsylvania, so growing up, going to tournaments, you play each other every weekend,” Hoggard said. “We formed a relationship since fourth grade, our parents know each other, so him coming here kind of gave me a sense of back home, East Coast competitiveness.”
If you ask the duo, neither of them said either has changed much since their halcyon days of weekend ball. Hoggard said Walker’s the same guy as a player and a person who just happened to get older. Walker complimented Hoggard’s consistently strong scoring ability and noted his passing has come into its own since their very first matchups.
This season will mark the first time they take the court on the same team. The bond between both players and their families developed as the weekends on the road stacked up. After all, it was Hoggard’s father who first told Walker and his family to let him reclassify, a pivotal decision for any young athlete.
And when Walker decided to enter the transfer portal, there was more than enough interest from major programs across the country. Hoggard said he saw Walker’s tweet announcing he was leaving Northeastern and when there was a clear interest in Michigan State, he immediately hit the phones to rekindle their relationship — and deliver his pitch.
“I just told him it’s a real family,” Hoggard said. “A lot of schools preach it, I’ve been through it. ... I just told him, if he comes here, he’s gonna be locked in from day one and everybody gonna show him love.”
Walker, a little quieter and more reserved than Hoggard, has a more simple memory of his recruitment.
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“It was just like ‘Yo, come here,’ you know?” he said of Hoggard’s selling points. “‘I’m with you.’ So, that was it.”
Walker committed after some solid recruitment and watching tape of prior Michigan State point guards, and then worked over the summer and set the stage for what Izzo called a “quarterback controversy” in regards to who will start. The dynamics are interesting enough: Walker’s a proven player taking a leap in conference competition, while Hoggard’s taken the right developmental steps all summer after demonstrating some inconsistency last season.
It’s a unique arrangement, to say the least, and one Izzo serves with a unique description.
“They’re both like New York City cab drivers,” he said. “They get along well together. They both work very hard. They’re a little different —one shoots it better than the other, one's bigger and stronger. One depends on the ball a little bit better. One rebounds a little bit better. So, I think it’s going to be a good combination.”
It will have to be a good combination to improve Michigan State’s fortunes after a season with a nearly nonexistent running game and key playmakers’, such as redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser and junior forward Malik Hall, production suffering due to a lesser passing game. Hoggard and Walker have been tasked with revitalizing both aspects of the game, creating a minor adjustment for Walker, who said he isn’t used to getting the outlet and pushing the ball as fast as possible.
Regardless, Walker said he thinks the Spartans’ fast break is really good and fits his natural quickness, so long as he gets in a rhythm with it. He added that Hoggard helped assimilate him into the team on the court as much as off.
“I think I know everybody pretty well on the team,” he said. “It was easy to figure out what everybody likes to do just by watching (Hoggard) play with them."
Despite the responsibilities at hand, both Walker and Hoggard downplay their competition for the starting job in practice and eschew any notion that it’s affected their relationship. Walker said it “doesn’t even feel like competing” and Hoggard said they can get into plenty of arguments on the court and act like “nothing happened” once they reach the locker room and beyond.
“We can hold each other accountable and (have it) not be like someone’s trying to tear you down,” Hoggard said. “He could tell me something I might not want to hear, I can tell him something he might not want to hear. It’s just gonna go a long way.”
Off the court, Walker said Hoggard and him spend time together playing Call of Duty: Warzone and take trips to Tropical Smoothie Cafe and Cold Stone Creamery.
“He just comes along for the ride,” Walker said.Two longtime friends, former opponents and now teammates. Don’t forget that they’re also proud East Coast point guards, a region romanticized for producing flashy guard play and legendary playground showcases at Rucker Park. It’s a different flavor of play than what’s been seen in the past at Michigan State, a program that’s pulled its all-time greatest point guards almost entirely from Michigan.
But the promise is more than there, even if it’s coming from a different place. So, as a preview before a homecoming of sorts against Kansas on Nov. 9 at Madison Square Garden, what separates them from, say, a typical Midwestern point guard?
“I mean, we might play on the playground a little bit more,” Hoggard said lightly. “We’re tougher.”
For the first time, Walker is a little more descriptive than Hoggard when asked what sets them apart.
“We’re crafty, we’re tough,” he said. “Very good at finishing, and we just like to win.”
This story is part of our Nov. 2 print edition. View the full issue here.
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