With the upper levels curtained off in Bryce Jordan Center, junior forward Seth Lundy gave Penn State a one-point lead with 90 seconds to go to cap off a wild 14-point comeback that saw the home team fight with a determination that’s become a familiar sight in Happy Valley recently.
Ninety seconds of game clock later, fifth-year center John Harrar practically threw Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo’s words after Saturday’s 76-61 win over Indiana back in his face, describing the win as “gritty not pretty.” Michigan State’s Big Ten regular-season title hopes took a substantial hit. A crowd of people probably looked up and wished the upper decks were open and filled to the brim.
And Michigan State fell 62-58 to Penn State with another frustratingly inconsistent performance.
There’s a lot to go over. With that in mind, here’s a report card of sorts regarding some of the notable aspects of the Spartans’ forgettable loss:
Penn State’s game plan and execution: A
Way back in December, Penn State Head Coach Micah Shrewsberry stood at the podium in the Breslin Center after an 80-64 loss that dropped his team to 0-2 in the Big Ten. His remarks were similar to what a lot of opposing coaches said throughout Michigan State’s nine-game win streak that turned plenty of heads around the nation.
“They were flying down the court,” he said. “And that’s what you expect. I told our guys, ‘I’ve coached in the Big Ten for four years, I’ve been watching Big Ten basketball since I was like 8 years old. And I’ve seen this story.’ ... “I need to prepare them better the next time.”
Tuesday night’s result was a promise Shrewsberry fulfilled to Penn State, especially in one aspect: they weren’t gonna let Michigan State run all over them. Or run too much success at all. The Spartans had 31 fastbreak points in that blitzing win on Dec. 11, 2021, that marked their fourth straight win, another familiar story at the time.
On their second go-around against Penn State, they had three.
It’s easy to say, well, duh. Who wouldn’t wanna take away Michigan State’s greatest weapon? But better teams have tried and failed to take it away to force the Spartans to play a brand of basketball that hasn’t been the kindest to them since the start of the year. Nor is Penn State likely in a position to shoot 51.9% in the second half without stuffing the run either.
That’s worth the highest mark on this report card.
Point guards: B-
For the most part, a B- doesn’t do a whole lot to boost your grade point average. It certainly doesn’t tank it, either.
That’s why this seems like the proper grade for sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard (zero points, five assists) and junior guard Tyson Walker’s (eight points, four assists) combined performance in Happy Valley. As point guards, they’ve been maligned for many of their inconsistencies this season but while their stat lines might not scream it, they weren’t the root problem in Tuesday’s loss.
Start with what they didn’t do: Walker and Hoggard combined for a season-low one turnover against Penn State. Let that sink in: one! And while Hoggard’s time on the floor was cut short by an ankle sprain in the second half, it also marked the first time he’s recorded zero turnovers after playing more than 10 minutes in his Michigan State career. Giveaways are a hindrance no matter where they come from, but the growth in this aspect from the two is more than encouraging with this next run of basketball coming up.
More on what they did do: After a first half of the season that led to many long questions about Walker’s willingness to pass instead of shoot (4-5 from the field), he showed little hesitation to fire away when presented with the opportunity, reeling off some key makes in the waning minutes. That’s yet another measure of improvement that’s going to need to be present for the Spartans as the regular season comes to a close.
Izzo didn’t make players available after the game, a true rarity for Michigan State basketball. He also declined to name the players he was most displeased with.
It’s beating a dead horse at this point — there’s still plenty of things to work through. But Izzo’s point guards shouldn’t be on that list.
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If Walker’s inclination to shoot when given the opportunity was heartening, some of the shot-taking tendencies from his teammates were anything but. Too often, it felt like there was a litany of passed-up shots from Michigan State when they could've used a bucket, shuffling opportunity after opportunity until something had to get forced with the shot clock running low.
Redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser and junior forward Malik Hall were often in the mix as those opportunities went by. Hall, a candidate to become a go-to guy for Michigan State, only managed three points (1-4 from the field) with the aggression he displayed against Indiana practically non-existent. Hauser fared better with six points (2-3 from deep) but moved to pass instead of shooting far too frequently when some strong chances presented themselves.
Penn State’s defense deserves some due credit for this, but some of those looks were not ones to be turned down, especially when Hall has steadily shown throughout conference play that he’s perhaps the strongest one-on-one offensive option with Hauser working through struggles to become a strong complement.
Then there’s the unique situation enveloping senior forward Gabe Brown. After riding out a prolonged shooting slump and exploding for 17 points against Rutgers, he’s slumped again to go 2-12 from the field over his last two games, an alarming line for a player that entered the season with high expectations regarding an enhanced role.
Michigan State clearly made a conscious effort to get him more shots in the second half against Penn State but his struggles continued despite the volume. Off nights are always possible but Brown’s overall downward trend is concerning enough to bump his position group’s grade down further.
Julius Marble II: B+
Poor Marble. Of the five games he’s cracked double-digits scoring this season, his team’s record is 2-3, including a career-high 18 points on 7-7 shooting in a dismal loss to Northwestern that was merely the beginning of this roller coaster 4-5 stretch for the Spartans.
The misfortune of another great performance upended by a shocking loss continued on Tuesday. Marble had 14 points (6-7 shooting) and eight rebounds in a game that saw him notch the highest offensive rating (153, according to KenPom) of any player on the floor that night. Mired in offensive inconsistency, the junior center fired off hook shots, picked up a brutal block on fifth-year forward Jalanni White and provided the team with a stabilizing force it desperately needed even as their lead began to dwindle.
Marble’s struggles on the defensive end towards the close as Harrar (16 points, 16 rebounds) helped seal off the win for his team with some monster offensive rebounds and buckets showcased what the junior center will have to do to become a more consistent presence for Michigan State. But being the one clear-cut bright spot on a day where nothing was truly working? That’s deserving of Michigan State’s highest grade.
In letter grading systems, C- essentially translates to slightly below average. And according to BartTorvik, that’s almost what Michigan State’s adjusted defensive efficiency was: slightly below average, with a game rating of 95.2 compared to their season rating at 95.7.
The Spartans did force some prolonged scoring droughts out of Penn State. Marble’s aforementioned block on White was a defensive play for the highlight reel. And yet, as the Nittany Lions actively worked to out tough them on both ends of the floor, Michigan State failed to turn in a hard-nosed defensive performance they could hang their hat on as offensive possessions drifted by.
The road forward for Michigan State isn’t perfectly clear. But at the very least, they'll need to be able to lean on stronger efforts guarding and rebounding on the defensive end to prevent further losses like Tuesday's.
Michigan State's overall grade: C-
The grade may seem like a surprise here for a game that’s in contention for Michigan State’s worst loss of the season. The fact of the matter is this was a game they could’ve won in any number of ways: slightly better defense, a couple more makes from their key playmakers or maybe even a couple more shots taken instead of passed up.
It just didn’t happen. In a league where there are no true gimme games on any night, against any team, slightly below average wasn’t enough to cut it.
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