Monday, November 28, 2022

Foul trouble haunts Michigan State, sombers Sissoko’s breakout game

November 12, 2022
Junior center Mady Sissoko places his hands on his face after fouling out during the Spartans matchup with No. 2 Gonzaga in the 2022 Armed Forces Classic on Nov. 11. The Spartans fell 64-63.
Junior center Mady Sissoko places his hands on his face after fouling out during the Spartans matchup with No. 2 Gonzaga in the 2022 Armed Forces Classic on Nov. 11. The Spartans fell 64-63. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

CORONADO, Calif. – As MSU was tied at 63 with No. 2 Gonzaga on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, senior forward Drew Timme drew a foul on MSU junior center Mady Sissoko.

He missed the first free throw and canned the second, giving the Bulldogs a one-point lead in what served as the game-winning point with 1:51 to play. 

But perhaps more importantly, the foul was Sissoko’s fifth, disqualifying him from the game. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but not Friday night. Not when graduate forward Joey Hauser was already on the bench with five fouls. And certainly not this season with so much riding on Sissoko’s shoulders. 

That’s because Sissoko’s departure was an absolute buzzkill. The Mali native was in the midst of his best game as Spartan – one that was a long time coming. But, four second-half fouls ultimately ended his night with a team-leading 14 points and nine rebounds. 

“Everything,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said of Sissoko’s performance. “Everything, including when I thought he was getting nailed, held down. It was a tough game and I give a lot of credit to maybe a tough game to officiate, but, boy I thought Mady did a heck of a job trying to front and was getting bold a little bit.”

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MSU’s foul trouble began with Hauser, who picked up two fouls in the first 6:23 and was forced to the bench for the remainder of the half. After leading the Spartans with 18 points in the season opener versus Northern Arizona, Hauser was limited to just 19 minutes for two points, one rebound and zero connections from the field. 

It forced Izzo to go to freshman forward Jaxon Kohler early, but it was clear he couldn't handle Timme or the 7-foot sophomore center Efton Reid III. In just 11 minutes, Kohler was the team worst at -14 and failed to score. 

“We just didn't have the right bodies in there,” Izzo said. “We just couldn't. The second half, some shots weren't falling, but first half (Gonzaga’s) shots weren't falling. It was that kind of night. I think everything about the night was great except the final score. I'm telling you what we wanted to do going under ball screens, following the game plan it was unbelievable.”

Izzo could’ve potentially gone with freshman center Carson Cooper, but he was adamant postgame that Cooper “wasn’t ready to play.”

“It only bothers me because we ran out of bodies and that was a body we could use right now,” Izzo said.

In the first half, Sissoko was a monster. Offensively, he was working the pick-and-roll remarkably while also getting position and making Timme work a little harder than he probably anticipated. On the other end of the floor, Sissoko grabbed six rebounds and had one swat.

Even though Timme finished with 22 points, the All-American had to earn each bucket, especially with Sissoko on the floor. 

“Just going out and then just don't give him any chance to catch the ball,” Sissoko said of the game plan against Timme. “So I was trying to do that earlier, and they tried, keep pushing, keep him out of his way close to the basket.”

Sissoko is no stranger to picking up fouls rather quickly. He’s done it each of the last two years, and it’s part of why he played sporadically while crispening his game. Friday was different, though. Few, if any, of the fouls were the reckless ones Sissoko was notorious for. It was the most controlled he’s looked in two years. 

“Those calls can go either way today,” Sissoko said. “I just have to keep working, playing hard. Most nights, it's not going to be called like that so I just have to keep working hard and play hard.”

As it appears through two games, a lot rests on Sissoko’s shoulders. Hauser can be great, but he has the propensity of following it up with equally as many bad games. Kohler is young, and it’s unfair to have high expectations for him. Cooper, well, sounds like he’s in the doghouse right now. 

Gonzaga was Michigan State’s first test of the season, and it was one missed shot away from upsetting the No. 2 team in the country. Sissoko still has a ways to go with some of the fundamentals – free throw shooting in particular – but his outing can’t be discounted. He flashed that he could be a formidable presence down low. 

There was one play in the first half where senior forward Malik Hall cut back the door and elevated for the lob. He couldn’t handle it cleanly, and the loose ball fell right in the hands of Sissoko under the basket for a wide-open dunk. Was it lucky? Sure, but good players and good teams get lucky. 

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MSU didn’t get lucky enough Friday night, but it has to feel good when Sissoko is on the floor because that may be when the Spartans are at their best. 

“You can see the little struggles we had when we had to go smaller when he was in foul trouble,” Hoggard said. “But Mady did his thing and we appreciate him for doing that.”

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