If you were an ill-informed bystander on Monday afternoon in the Breslin Center, you would’ve thought that Michigan State and No.3 Purdue were playing with the Big Ten title on the line.
Instead, it was an unranked Big Ten team missing one of its key players, taking on one of the best teams in the nation. The two conference foes had a bout for the ages, trading blows down to the very last whistle.
The Izzone was electric, keeping things rowdy throughout the afternoon, repeating unsavory chants and raining down boos upon the officials.
Easy shots were hard to come by, thanks to some stout defending from both squads. Each rebound felt essential to the flow of the game.
MSU’s junior guard A.J. Hoggard had another stellar game, earning 14 points as well as eight assists.
Purdue’s freshman guard Fletcher Loyer (the brother of former Spartan Foster Loyer was a problem for Michigan State’s defenders all night, finishing with 17 points.
But taking center stage was the battle between MSU’s senior guard Tyson Walker and Purdue’s junior center Zach Edey. The two landed a majority of the blows for their individual teams; Walker finished with a season high 30 points, while Edey notched a career- high 32. The Purdue big man also finished with 17 rebounds.
Now, if this was an actual boxing match, it wouldn’t have been exactly a fair fight. Walker is 6-foot-1, weighing 180 pounds. He’d be classified as a cruiserweight.
Edey, on the other hand, is a true heavyweight. The colossal center stands at a towering 7-foot-4, clocking in at over 300 pounds.
“It’s like guarding a moving tree trunk, one that’s trying to swing you and hit you,” freshman center Carson Cooper, one of the three Spartan bigs tasked with defending Edey, said. “You feel all 290 of him when you’re trying to guard him.”
Luckily, the basketball court is the great equalizer. Walker and Edey each flexed their offensive muscles, taking over the game for large stretches - especially in the waning minutes.
Tactically, Michigan State opted to take away the Boilermaker’s perimeter shooting instead of honing in on Edey. This meant that, while Purdue wouldn't have many easy shots from beyond the arch, Edey would often have a one-on-one situation with a Spartan defender.
“We didn’t want to get their three point shooting going,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said. “I picked my poison.”
MSU’s go-to option to defend Edey was 6-foot-9 junior center Mady Sissoko. However, when Sissoko was on the bench with foul trouble, a pair of freshmen were tasked with guarding one of the best players in the Big Ten. Considering the situation, Cooper and forward Jaxon Kohler weren’t terrible, but Edey still took full advantage when the young, inexperienced players were on the court.
Edey got to work quickly in the opening minutes of the game, scoring the Boilermaker’s first six points and acting as an offensive catalyst the rest of the way. Oftentimes, Purdue’s game plan seemed simple - get the ball to the big man in the paint and watch him bully his way to the hoop.
Walker, on the other hand, didn’t have the best of starts. He missed his first four shots from the field, finally scoring his first points near the halfway point of the first half.
However, once Walker got hot, he caught fire. He rattled off nine more points in the first half and took that heat right into the second.
It seemed as though Walker could score in nearly any way that was asked of him. Whether it be catching and shooting in the mid-range, driving the net, zooming past slow defenders to punish or mismatch or draining open (and not so open) threes, Walker was an absolute menace on the court.
“Give him the ball and get out of the way,” Hoggard said. “You just know when he gets hot, good things happen.”
Walker single-handedly took over the final five minutes for Michigan State. Down 51-50, he scored 10 straight points for Michigan State. Then, with 12 seconds left in the game, Walker netted a two-point jumper to take a 63-62 MSU lead. It seemed as though the Spartans’ senior guard had finally inflicted the knockout punch.
However, ultimately it was Edey that landed the final blow. Seconds after the Walker basket, trailing by one point, Purdue moved quickly down the court. The behemoth got the ball, spun to the basket and dropped it in over Sissoko’s head, leaving just over two seconds left on the clock for Michigan State.
With just a couple seconds, the ball naturally went into Walker’s hands. But his three-point attempt missed wide left and Edey walked away from the fight as the champ.
That loss is going to sting for a bit. MSU is now 4-3 in Big Ten play (tied for fourth in the conference) and a win over a team like Purdue would’ve looked great on the resume come March.
Michigan State shouldn’t hang its head too low, though. Despite missing Hall, the Spartans nearly managed to beat one of the best teams in the nation. They out-rebounded one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Walker’s performance was still incredible. Hoggard is still playing great with the team clawing and scrapping its way back into the contest, even when it seemed as though the Boilermakers were running away with it. The Big Ten season is long.
“Hang with these guys, they gave you their money's worth” Izzo said. “They competed. There aren’t many times I go into a losing locker room and thank my team for my competing.”