Michigan State is heading to Happy Valley Wednesday night to take on Penn State in its second Big Ten matchup of the season.
It’s been a rough two-game stretch for the Spartans. After Notre Dame dismantled MSU 70-52 in South Bend, the Spartans returned to the Breslin Center for the Big Ten opener just to lose 70-63 to Northwestern.
After a month straight of traveling across the country and playing some of the top teams in the country, fatigue and injuries seem to be finally catching up with the Spartans.
“Our players, to be honest with you, are dead,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said.
With that context in mind, there still weren’t too many positives to take away from Sunday evenings frustrating loss.
When senior guard Tyson Walker got into foul trouble early in the second half, MSU’s offense fell apart. The Spartans had multiple opportunities down the stretch to make it a one-possession game and complete a comeback, but nearly every trip down to the Wildcats’ side of the court featured a lifeless showing on offense. Michigan State just couldn’t seem to find one player to take over and control the game.
However, one of the few bright spots against Northwestern was the play of junior guard A.J. Hoggard. Knocked out of the starting lineup by Izzo (a response to Hoggard’s turnover issues this season), he wound up playing 31 minutes and collecting 12 points and eight assists (both team-highs).
While sophomore guard Jaden Akins returned to the court against Northwestern Sunday evening, he played wary of an injury and had trouble keeping up as the minutes piled up. He finished with just three points in 23 minutes played. According to Izzo, Akins still has some catching up to do in terms of conditioning.
“His fatigue factor, I think you saw with your own eyes last night, it’s not going to be great for a while,” Izzo said Monday.
With the team gassed and Akins not at 100%, the absence of senior forward Malik Hall hurts even worse. The rotation looks choppy on both sides of the court without the experienced senior.
“We need our health back, that ain’t gonna happen for a while,” Izzo said. “We’re just going to have to do the best job we can.”
Starting off 0-2 in Big Ten play would not be ideal, considering the conference looks to be stacked this season. It’ll take a gritty performance from a worn-out, banged-up squad to stop that from happening.
“We’ve got to all rally around and play our butt off against a good team that’s playing well,” Izzo said.
Scouting the opponent
Penn State currently sits at 6-2 with a pretty mediocre schedule.
However, with a roster bolstered by plenty of upper-class leadership, the Nittany Lions are experienced when it comes to Big Ten play, and familiar when it comes to Michigan State.
“This (Penn State team) is a hard-nosed, experienced team,” Izzo said. “They have five fifth-year guys that play on this team. Five.”
Three of their top scorers are among that experienced group. Senior guard Jalen Pickett’s 16.1 average points per game lead the group, with fellow senior guards Seth Lundy and Camren Wynter right behind him.
In fact, the top five scorers for Penn State are guards. It's a deep position for the Nittany Lions, who aren’t afraid to roll out small-ball lineups with as many as five guards on the court at once.
Those guards are excellent from downtown. The Nittany Lions take, and make, an awful lot of three-point shots. PSU tops the Big Ten in three-pointers per game (12.1), three-point attempts and shoot a whopping 40.4%.
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Hall’s strong defense will be missed dearly against such strong guard play, especially beyond the arc. Although he’s not fully healthy, expect Izzo to lean on Akins’ athleticism to guard the perimeter for Michigan State.
Tipoff is slated for 6:30 p.m. and the game will be televised via the Big Ten Network.
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