For months, Michigan State men’s basketball was a program with far more questions than answers.
A full preseason of quotes from Head Coach Tom Izzo and company brought light to the numerous storylines afflicting his team. The usual suspects, asked in any and every fashion: who will be the primary center? Who will take the reins at point guard? What’s going to set this team apart from last season?
And in the biggest games, who will emerge as a leader and go-to scorer? Who can emerge?
After a transformative offseason, sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard provided at least one answer in Michigan State’s 87-74 loss to Kansas on Tuesday night. Hoggard scored a career-high 17 points with 4 assists (8-13 FG, 1-2 3FG) in just 26 minutes to lead the Spartans in scoring and give them their heartbeat under the infamous concave ceiling of Madison Square Garden.
It’s one game and if last season taught anybody anything, it’s unwise to put a lot of stock into one early performance. Rankings change, teams rise and fall, and the best players in the preseason might not even earn a mention come March—after all, this is college basketball.
Still, there’s something to be said about the nature of Hoggard’s performance, one sitting snug between unsurprising and unexpected. On one hand, he more than showcased his ability to push the ball, penetrate and provide a steady offensive and defensive presence in Michigan State’s two preseason games against Ferris State and Grand Valley State.
And yet, on a team that could be competitive in any number of ways, Hoggard’s arrival is still a bit of a shock. In those aforementioned exhibitions, there was also an occasional recklessness as he upped the tempo and demonstrated a lack of energy on defense.
Izzo has said before that he has nearly seven starters with Hoggard firmly in the mix. Nonetheless, few would have pegged him to be the model of production he was against a strong Kansas squad, especially with the experienced lineup Michigan State brings to the table.
"I was really happy with AJ,” Izzo said after the game. “He pushed the ball on the break, he defended pretty well. I think he took a big step forward.”
Some samples of his latest step from Tuesday night: getting the ball off junior forward Malik Hall in transition, busting past Kansas guard Remy Martin and putting it up in Kansas’ paint to get the finish and foul, eyes never breaking from the rim. Driving into the arc and outside the paint, finding sixth-year senior forward Mitch Lightfoot blocking his way to the basket and kicking it back out to wide open freshman guard Max Christie for the made three.
And his only triple of the game: a well-timed take to make it 48-45 nearly five minutes into the second half. No moment perfectly summed up Hoggard’s overall game but one would be hard pressed to not mention this one, three fingers smashing into his temple in celebration of the shot being broadcast to millions of viewers.
It should go without saying that this didn’t come out of nowhere. Hoggard, the one holdover from 2020-21’s dismal campaign at the one, showed flashes of this vision and athleticism as a freshman but couldn’t find enough consistency to become a key player for the Spartans as they battled through a pivotal stretch to close out the regular season.
Quietly, he moved into the offseason with a mission. Hoggard said he worked on his overall game, shot and body, focused on being more aggressive and finding his feel for the offense.
The results were and have been impressive. Hoggard lost 20 pounds by changing his diet and getting enough sleep to become visibly quicker as he bobs and weaves down the court at a frenetic tempo.
“When I came in and things weren’t going the way I thought they were gonna go from the beginning, just playing-wise, being a little sluggish, being a little slow,” he said in October of his decision to cut weight. “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.”
During Monday’s weekly press conference, Izzo previewed the matchup against Kansas and incidentally, Hoggard’s breakthrough in a telling manner.
“A.J.’s almost a transfer because the guy that played last year and the guy that played this year is a way different guy,” he said. “We’re seeing a new body, a new mindset.”
So what now? It’s an interesting spot for the sophomore. Hoggard’s game is the first meaningful strike in a “quarterback controversy” Izzo has alluded to as junior point guard Tyson Walker’s performance of two points in 20 minutes, marred by some early fouls and turnovers, floundered in comparison.
Walker certainly won’t disappear from the rotation anytime soon as he works through the kinks to find what Izzo called the “happy medium” between his passing and shooting tendencies. Both can and will contribute to the team in different ways—Hoggard’s just the one getting a little early shine.
And while there were some miscues, the once “I’ll believe it when I see it” level promise Hoggard provides has been, well, seen.
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So who better to see it in person than those closest to him? The Coatesville, PA native and proud East Coaster said before the game that he "couldn't be more excited" to play in front of a litany of family and friends in the “Mecca” of basketball.
“Kind of a home game for me...I’m just focused," he said before the game. "I’m ready to go in with my team and just ready to get to war.”
Izzo said the Champions Classic is a “memory making” event and despite the loss, it’s clear Hoggard has one for the scrapbook. Only problem: there’s another question, too.
Can he keep it up?
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