In Vegas, Western Michigan was down roughly 25 points before they took the court. The Broncos, one of the bottom teams in the MAC last season, boast a tough, skilled backcourt with hard-nosed scorers like junior guard B. Artis White but their frontcourt leaves a little to be desired.
Michigan State isn’t a top 25 team and yet, in the eyes of many, they clock in at a hypothetical 26, just out of the picture. They rarely lose to Western Michigan and with the home court advantage and talent at hand, the Spartans would have to practically give up the game to the Broncos.
Which the Spartans did. At least for the first five minutes. Some of the offending plays:
An errant pass from freshman guard Max Christie was snatched by White for a fastbreak layup to put Western on the board. Junior guard Tyson Walker served up a steal for senior forward Mileek McMillan leading to an eventual kickout to senior guard Mack Smith for the open three. Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard turned it over to Smith, resulting in a fastbreak triple from junior guard Lamar Norman Jr. to put Michigan State in an early 11-9 hole.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Izzo said following the game. “We’re still not in sync.”
Teams rarely, if ever, play a perfect game. And the first five minutes obviously don’t tell the full story: from the waning minutes of the first half to the final buzzer, Michigan State did what they wanted to in a 90-46 rout, blowing past Broncos in transition, having their way and more in the paint and rebounding as well as any team could in those circumstances.
The success and the miscues are all a symptom of the things that can’t be seen on the court: the ever-elusive “happy mediums” and much-needed comfort zones that can access this team’s true potential or stunt its growth without them.
For example, Walker. The transfer point guard is one of the players working on finding the compromise between his passing and shooting while learning to run Michigan State’s break, an always demanding task.
His debut, an 87-74 loss to Kansas, saw him commit what Izzo called “ridiculous” turnovers and only drive to the rack for two points off a scarce three attempts from the field. He fared much better against Western Michigan (nine points and four assists in 28 minutes) due to a more aggressive approach that showed just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Walker utilizing his entire skillset at once.
Izzo admitted Walker is “caught in the middle” when it comes to passing, shooting and picking the right spots for both and that it will take some time for him to truly work his way onto the right side of the give and take.
“I think he’s pressing a little bit trying to figure out what to do,” Izzo said. “I think he realizes he’s got enough shooters around with Max and Joey and Gabe and that he wants to be a facilitator.”
Walker said Izzo and him have discussed the right spots for both and yet, there are still some issues in the mix. When asked about a turnover early in the second half against Western, he recounted his frustration over not taking the shot that was there instead of forcing the pass.
“I was just mad that I didn’t shoot the jump shot,” Walker said. “I asked myself ‘Why are you not shooting?’”
Hoggard, a fellow point guard who’s gone through some of the adjustments Walker’s currently dealing with, echoed some of Izzo’s sentiments and said he’s encouraged Walker to stay the same as a player while feeding into the tenets of the offense.
“I felt like he kind of took the backseat a little bit, me and him talked about it,” he said. “I just told him he needs to be aggressive and be himself because that’s what we need out of him. I don’t want his game to change.”
Redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser is also one of the players Izzo has referenced within the context of finding the happy medium between his passing and shooting habits. In a lot of ways, Hauser found it against Western Michigan, notching 12 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 50% shooting to display the “big difference” he cited between last season and the one at hand.
“(I) just have a better feel, more comfortable out there,” he said. “Last year, I kind of felt like a freshman a little bit all over again.”
Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. had a successful outing as well, posting 12 points and eight rebounds in only eight minutes of action. Again, it was a play into the give-and-take as he stayed low and active to bury competition on the block.
Izzo said Bingham responded “really well” after meetings regarding his game against Kansas, one that saw him get drawn to the outside more for three missed shots from the arc. In turn, the stronger, more consistent interior presence he provided against Western Michigan was welcomed by senior forward Gabe Brown.
“He’s a weapon down there,” Brown said of Bingham’s performance in the paint. “He posts hard, he gets the ball with two hands and goes to the jungle. Coach doesn’t want him to shoot fadeaways and shoot threes. Marcus is a hell of a player so down there, he’s unstoppable.”
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These performances in particular—steadied by compromise and backed up by comfort—help bring an idea of what Michigan State’s still unknown full potential could look like. No doubt it will take time but the early showings have given Brown a reason to be excited about the team’s growth.
“This team’s got a very good chance of being special,” he said. “I mean, we got new point guards, got new guys that take a different approach to every game ... I feel like we got a great chance to go far with (this group).”
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