On Monday, Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said he feels “as good as (he) can feel about his team”, noting the success of their summer and fall. He added that he thought both exhibition games against Ferris State and Grand Valley State went well but indicated a little difficulty in figuring out where the team is due to the competition.
“When I think of how we are compared to last year’s team, it’s easy for me to relay,” he said. "When I think of how we are according to who we’re gonna play, it’s a little more difficult to figure out.”
Izzo said it’s a “privilege” to play in one of the most visible events in college basketball and expressed further excitement at the idea of being able to finally find out where they stand in regards to one of the best teams in the country.
Now, with a national audience, they’ll have just that opportunity.
Projected starters, rotation and “happy mediums” on the home front
Michigan State sent out a starting lineup of junior guard Tyson Walker, freshman guard Max Christie, senior forward Gabe Brown, redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser and senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. in both of their exhibition games. While junior forward Malik Hall could easily be slotted in over Hauser, it appears unlikely that they’ll deviate from the starting lineup they utilized all preseason.
From there, Hall, sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard and freshman guard Jaden Akins round out what Izzo said is the “gist” of the playing group. He added that sophomore center Mady Sissoko will “for sure” be in the mix and alluded to junior forward Julius Marble being present in the bigs' rotation.
With that group in mind, Izzo said he believes the team will be better defensively, citing marked improvements from Hoggard and Christie, the addition of Walker and different courses of action at the five as reasons for further hope. Hall and Hauser’s ability to guard multiple positions, he added, provides a versatility that wasn’t present last season.
Offensively, there’s a refreshing amount of improved options. Izzo said the veteran corps of Bingham, Brown, Hall and Hauser are “better in every way, shape and form” partially because of a more stable point guard situation. And the Spartans boast some relatively unproven but more than promising scoring options with Christie, Akins, Walker and Hoggard.
The talent is there. For Izzo, it’s now about getting the most out of his team—particularly through finding what he called a “happy medium” for some key players.
Enter Hauser. Izzo said the redshirt senior forward did good work as a passer, rebounder and defender in the preseason and while his shooting is vital to the team’s success, he’s been more understanding of passing it more instead of taking every open shot.
“He doesn’t want to be just a one dimensional player—I agree with that,” Izzo said. “But he’s also one of my best shooters. I’ve learned in communication with a player, you kinda gotta figure out what he wants to do, what you need him to do and find the happy medium.”
Then there’s Walker. The Northeastern transfer has earned a considerable amount of praise from Izzo for his abilities and willingness to pass first but the message is different: find a balance between passing and shooting, get comfortable and put shots up.
“He takes defense as a priority, not a secondary,” Izzo said. “He takes getting the ball to other people as a priority, not a secondary. And he takes getting shots as a secondary. I’m trying to make it a little more of a priority because he can really shoot the ball.”
For Michigan State to be successful against Kansas, getting the most out of these compromises will be essential. Walker and Hauser’s multifaceted games are more than capable of matching up with some of the top talents in the country—it’s now about finding the right balance.
On paper, Kansas is more than deserving of their No. 3 overall ranking. After falling 85-51 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks return four starters from last season, including senior guard Ochai Agbaji, senior center David McCormack, redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Wilson and junior guard Christian Braun.
It’s a group that’s already received some early recognition with Agbaji, McCormack and senior Arizona State transfer Remy Martin being named to the Preseason All-Big 12 team. Martin, one of the top transfers in all of college basketball, also earned Preseason Player of the Year honors in a Big 12 that features the reigning national champion and an array of title contenders.
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Izzo said Kansas is “concerning” as they’re a smaller team that can get a lot of production out of their wings and guards while 6’10” 250-pound “manchild” McCormack looms in the middle. Despite admitting he hasn’t seen much of what they can do, Izzo cited Agbaji as their best returning player and was cautious of their ability to flip lineups.
Last season, the majority of Kansas’ offensive production came from Agbaji (14.1 points per game in 2020-21), McCormack (13.4 points per game) and Wilson (11.8 points per game). Wilson will be the Jayhawks' most notable absence as he continues to serve out his four-game suspension after a DUI arrest on October 31.
While Michigan State added a significant point guard of their own through the transfer portal, few guards will garner more attention on Tuesday night than Martin in his Kansas debut. The former Sun Devil was named first-team All-Pac 12 last year at 19.1 points per game (43.3% FG, 34.6% 3PT) and after testing the waters for the 2021 NBA Draft, he entered the transfer portal and committed to Kansas in May.
The Jayhawks added another talent at the one in sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu, a transfer from Drake University. Both Martin and Yesufu are adept at using their explosiveness to create off the bounce and provide the potent depth of scoring the Jayhawks sorely missed last season.
There have certainly been adjustments for the newcomers. In the Jayhawks lone exhibition game of the preseason, Martin came off the bench in place of fifth-year walk-on guard Chris Teahan after Kansas men's basketball Head Coach Bill Self admitted he wants to see Martin play the way “that we want to play.”
Of course, that was against Division II Emporia State, not Michigan State in a nationally televised game. With that and Wilson’s absence in mind, it’s more than possible Kansas trots out a guard-heavy starting lineup of Martin, Agbaji, Harris, Braun and McCormack against the Spartans.
Kansas also boasts an uncommonly deep team with other transfers and familiar faces in the fold. Guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (14.3 points per game at Iowa State in 2020-21) provides another formidable shooting presence in his seventh season of NCAA basketball, freshman guard Bobby Pettiford is poised to develop and continue the rich history of Kansas point guards and forward Cam Martin (25.0 points per game at Missouri Southern 2020-21) is a two-time Division II All-American that will get a steady flow of minutes off the bench.
Some interesting matchups to look out for: will Walker, a former Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, Defensive Player of the Year, and a defensively-improved Hoggard be able to limit Kansas’ dangerous point guard tandem? Will Bingham be able to go from post to post with a more physical, albeit smaller, McCormack? And can the Spartans find an answer to Kansas’ depth?
“Chip on the shoulder”
Michigan State is unranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll for the first time since 2011, the inaugural year of the Champions Classic. It’s an unusual feeling in East Lansing, one that Izzo isn’t holding any sort of grudge over.
“Sometimes I used the ‘chip on the shoulder’,” he said of prior unranked starts. “I didn’t use it this year. I haven’t used it at all because I haven’t deserved to use it. We are where we are because of how we played last year.”
Then there’s the setting. Madison Square Garden is fondly referred to as the “Mecca” of basketball, one of the most dazzling venues in all of sports. Despite its legendary status, Izzo noted his team isn’t nervous for the game and is unsure the “aura” of Madison Square Garden will have much of an effect on them as a whole.
Izzo said he’s particularly interested in how Walker and Hoggard, two East Coast natives, react to playing in one of the most prestigious arenas in the region. For his part, Hoggard said he “couldn't be more excited” for the opportunity to play what’s “kind of a home game,” adding that he will have plenty of family in the building to cheer him on.
Despite being unranked and going against a top five team, Izzo has a certain expectation for Tuesday’s game regardless of the outcome.
“Ninety percent of the games we’ve played (in the Champions Classic), win or lose, have been tough games and games that I think we’ve learned from,” Izzo said. “I don’t see this (being) any different.”
Michigan State tips off against Kansas at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
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