INDIANAPOLIS – When Head Coach Tom Izzo announced his final decision to stay out of the transfer portal in the search for potential centers and to remain loyal to his shortened rotation, MSU fans went berserk.
Marcus Bingham Jr. went to the NBA and Julius Marble transferred to Texas A&M. It was uncertain whether or not junior center Mady Sissoko would be able to fulfill Izzo and the rest of Spartan Nation’s expectations.
From averaging four and a half minutes a game last season to appearing in the starting lineup this year against arguably the two top centers in the country, Sissoko has successfully shut down doubts surrounding his performance capabilities.
From his standout game against Gonzaga's senior forward Drew Timme as the Spartans' leading scorer with 14 points and a team-high of nine rebounds to Tuesday night’s career-high 16 points to go along with stellar defense against reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, Sissoko is a whole new player on this year’s roster.
His growth from arriving as a raw, lengthy prospect in 2020 to Tuesday's Champions Classic is evident, and this season's development is even more visible.
Izzo said that an advantage of facing tougher opponents early on like No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 4 Kentucky is that it teaches him about his team’s character and what they can do together.
“Mady’s always played straight up and down and balance has been a problem,” Izzo said. "He just did a hell of a job. The guys were so happy for him and so am I.”
Senior forward Malik Hall said that he never doubted Sissoko for a second. Even when the internet was circling with skepticism of Izzo's decision to stay away from the portal, he stuck with his gut.
“I’m happy,” Hall said. “Since coach announced that we weren’t taking anybody from the portal, we all saw the tweets about coach needing to get a center in the portal. Personally, I knew Mady was going to fit perfectly with everybody that we had. I’m just happy that he's holding his own ground.”
Hall, who scored 20 points Tuesday night, recalls coming forward in interviews speaking up on Sissoko’s potential this season.
Last season Sissoko averaged 1.1 points and one rebound a game. In the first three 2022-23 season games alone, he’s already played 78 minutes, scored 34 total points and grabbed eight offensive rebounds and 15 on the defensive end.
It was in question of whether or not Tshiebwe would show face in Tuesday’s game at all after recovering from a knee injury and sitting out in Kentucky’s first two matchups. When he was spotted participating in warmups, it raised concern for the green and white.
Sissoko went into Tuesday’s matchup knowing that whether Tshiebwe competed or not, he would bring the heat either way.
Sissoko played a career-high of 34 minutes against Kentucky, securing four offensive and four defensive rebounds to go with the 16 points. Sissoko stood his ground at the five throughout the entirety of both overtimes, keeping Tshiebwe out of the paint.
Despite Sissoko’s impressive performance in the Champions Classic, personal fouls are what seem to be his weakness. It was an issue in his limited role as an underclassman and still appears in the picture this year.
Sissoko racked up four personal fouls against Kentucky and five in the Armed Forces Classic versus Gonzaga. However, in perhaps his most impressive feat, Sissoko's fourth foul came with 3:53 remaining in regulation. He went on to play the remainder of regulation and all of the two overtimes besides a one-minute breather without picking up that fifth foul. Meanwhile, his counterpart Tshiebwe fouled out with 32 seconds remaining in the first overtime, sticking his 22 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks to the bench.
If Sissoko can stay out of foul trouble, there’s no telling what he’ll do for MSU at the five.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” graduate student forward Joey Hauser said. “He had to defend two of the best bigs in the country. He’s done a heck of a job. He’s been a guy who gets scraps on the offensive rebounds defensive end and defends his butt off.”
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