Michigan State’s high-flying leaping ability was on full display for a packed Little Caesars Arena as the Spartans jumped past Oakland 90-78.
Michigan State had to get creative to find answers to Oakland’s quirky 2-3 matchup zone, which has caused fits for opposing teams all season. The answer for Michigan State was the lob behind Oakland’s aggressive on-ball defense.
Michigan State successfully completed seven alley-oops (tallied by hand during game) after finding the gaps in Oakland’s in-your-face zone, helping soften the edges of the Golden Grizzlies’ defensive foundation.
“We worked on it a lot in practice,” senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. said. “I knew I was gonna get a lot of open looks. And Tyson (Walker) did a good job of getting me the ball — and A.J (Hoggard)."
The lob served as Michigan State’s key that helped unlock the answers to Oakland’s unique defensive strategy. The delivery through the air helped Michigan State reach 90 points, tied for its highest point total of the season.
The beginning of the strong offensive performance began from deep for the Spartans. After freshman guard Max Christie hit a pair of threes in the opening minutes, Oakland began to aggressively close out on shooters to deny the shot.
The aggressive on-ball defense created wide open driving lanes for MSU’s guards, who penetrated to force a defensive rotation. Walker and Hoggard dissected the defense with crisp passes after getting into the paint, leading to a number of easy baskets, including an avalanche of alley-oops.
“The whole game plan was just to get into the paint, look out, look over the top,” Walker said. “And that's how we got the easy threes in the beginning. And then we started getting the lobs because they was so far out on the shooters.”
The ability of Michigan State’s point guards to penetrate into the paint and force a rotation from the Golden Grizzlies’ big men created windows for Bingham and wings such as senior forward Gabe Brown to attack the rim off-ball and soar through the sky in the Little Caesars Arena for an easy two points.
The success of Walker and Hoggard in attacking the gaps of the zone led to the strongest performance for the backcourt duo this season. The two point guards combined for 17 assists and only two turnovers, making MSU’s offense turn into an unstoppable machine.
The star playmaker for MSU was Walker, who had 10 points and 10 assists for his first double-double of his career. He dictated the pace of the game and relentlessly attacked Oakland’s guards to create genuine scoring opportunities.
“Tyson's definitely one of our biggest leaders,” Christie said. “I mean, he's QB1, he's the point guard. So he's a direct connection of coach on the court. And so he does a really good job getting us into our spots, being a great leader and making sure that we're doing the right thing.”
Walker was the straw stirring MSU’s drink all night long on both ends of the court. On top of his career performance offensively, the junior point guard had three steals on top of his constant playmaking on the other end of the court. It was the type of game Walker wanted to have against a strong defense.
“We settled in good,” Walker said. “I got 10 assists off of it — definitely settled in. AJ had about eight. So it was definitely looking good just throwing it over the top.”
Michigan State also found success attacking over the top during transition, which was a point of emphasis coming into tonight according to MSU Men's Basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo. Michigan State was able to outscore Oakland 15-6 thanks in large part to the Spartans’ ability to create through its athleticism.
“We ran early and we hit those lobs,” Izzo said. “And I think that was a big difference in keeping us going at a different pace.”
Michigan State’s high-flying antics had the fans who were donning green and white at the Little Caesars Arena on their feet with the above-the-rim antics. On multiple occasions, MSU fans erupted in jubilation because MSU had connected on yet another alley-oop. Walker said the atmosphere had him prepared to play after disappointing in MSU’s last game in an NBA arena against Kansas.
“Actually, we got a big crowd with us today,” Walker said. “I didn't expect that. And last time we played in a pro arena, I kind of played bad so I didn't want to do it again. I played better today.”
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