Things weren’t looking too hot for Michigan State in the opening minutes in Saturday afternoon’s rivalry game.
The Spartans managed to put up just three points in the first six minutes of the game, trailing 7-3 to the visiting Michigan Wolverines. With an offense struggling to churn out any sort of solid offensive looks, that four-point deficit felt more like a double-digit one for MSU.
Then, leading the offense from the point, junior guard A.J. Hoggard put his head down and drove to the net, notching a tough basket to finally end MSU’s scoreless drought.
Hoggard went back to work on the following possession. Dribbling around the point, sifting for an open look, Hoggard spotted junior center Mady Sissoko shifting toward the net. He lobbed it up, and Sissoko brought it crashing down to the net over Michigan’s star center Hunter Dickinson’s head, knotting things up 7-7 and electrifying the crowd in the process.
Just like that, Hoggard had jump-started the Spartan offense – albeit temporarily.
The rest of the game looked quite a lot like those first few minutes. Both offenses were stagnant for large stretches, back-to-back baskets were hard to come by for both squads and by the end of the evening, both teams finished with less than 60 points.
However, one of the few consistent offensive weapons for the Spartans throughout the afternoon was Hoggard. Running the Spartans’ offense with efficiency, he finished with 15 points, six assists, four rebounds and just one turnover. Hoggard wasn’t just impressive on offense, he also made some plays on the other side of the court.
“He did a lot of good things,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said. “The biggest one was guarding.”
The junior guard had the tough task of defending Michigan’s extremely athletic guards, sophomore Kobe Bufkin and freshman Jett Howard. While both guards hit double-digits, they had relatively inefficient afternoons, shooting 36.4% and 37.5% from the field respectively.
In total, Hoggard’s showing against Michigan Saturday afternoon was just another impressive performance in what has been a year of improvement for the junior guard.
“I’m really proud of him (Hoggard),” Izzo said. “He’s not turning the ball over, he’s making good decisions, he’s running the team.”
A season ago, and even at the very beginning of this season, Hoggard was not the same player. His body language was different, his play was different and the production was different. He’d turn the ball over, take a bad shot or do something else to draw the ire of Izzo and the coaching staff.
But lately, there’s been a change. Hoggard is playing with confidence and intelligence, and it is paying off on the court as Izzo referred to the frustration Hoggard would often show.
“You saw the body language at the beginning of the year. You saw it last year. It was loud and clear every day,” Izzo said. “You don’t see any of that (this season). It’s not just that he’s playing better, he’s handled everything a lot better.”
Hoggard’s growth did not happen overnight. Saturday’s imposing performance against the Wolverines has been building for weeks, if not months. It’s the result of a player that has proactively worked on his flaws in order to round out his game, improving himself and his team in the process.
“He’s definitely made a lot of progress,” Izzo said. “I’m happy for him, because he wants to be a player. And he’s making himself a player. That’s what process and development are all about.”
One of the areas of improvement with quantifiable results is shooting. While his field goal shooting percentage has dipped a bit this season, Hoggard has improved beyond the arch and at the line. Hoggard’s three-point percentage is currently 25.7%, an improvement of almost four percent compared to last season. His free-throw shooting has taken an enormous leap, leaping from 63% last season to 85.2% this season.
“Probably his biggest improvement, other than his decision making, has been his shooting,” graduate senior forward Joey Hauser said. “There were times before where teams would go under every ball screen, playing him at the Big Ten logo. But you can’t anymore, because he’s able to step in there and make a pull-up jumper.”
It’s tough to pin down the area in which Hoggard has made the most strides thus far, as he is averaging more points, rebounds and assists this season. Whether it's shooting, playmaking, or decision-making, he seems to be improving in nearly every facet of his game. It looks as though he’s finally becoming the player that Izzo believes he can be. Even opposing coaches are taking notice.
“The kid is a worker, he’s all about the growth mindset and improving every year,” Michigan Head Coach Juwan Howard said. “You could just see his growth from last year to this year.”
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