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Despite heartbreaking finish, Sweet 16 run provides hope for Michigan State’s future

March 23, 2023
Junior guard AJ Hoggard and sophomore guard Jaden Akins celebrate during the Sweet Sixteen matchup against Kansas State University at Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2023.
Junior guard AJ Hoggard and sophomore guard Jaden Akins celebrate during the Sweet Sixteen matchup against Kansas State University at Madison Square Garden on March 23, 2023. —
Photo by Audrey Richardson | The State News

There’s no cure for heartbreak. And that’s what Michigan State’s players are: heartbroken

It’s hard to blame them. The Spartans were on the losing end of perhaps the best game of the NCAA Tournament thus far, an overtime thriller that came down to the very last seconds. Kansas State made just enough plays down the stretch to slam the door shut on a Michigan State team that seemed hell-bent on responding to every punch landed by the Wildcats.

“You know, (it's) super disappointing,” junior guard A.J. Hoggard said. “We wanted to win. We were so close to our goal.” 

That heartbreak goes right to the top. Head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo is a coach with eight Final Fours and a national title on his resume. He’s been here before. Izzo is the first person to tell you he’s usually a “glass half-empty” type of guy

But despite all his accolades and his normally pessimistic leanings, Izzo won’t look back at this year as a disappointment. He’ll look back at a resilient bunch of players that took their lumps, grew, developed and even won a couple of tournament games.

“It’ll go down as one of the great years for me, not a good year,” Izzo said. “It’ll go down as one of the great years. We had our issues during the year, and I watched guys grow at the end and just kind of buy in. That’s what happens — when you buy in and you trust the coach and the coach trusts the players, some cool things can.”

Again, there’s no cure for heartbreak. MSU’s players, coaching staff and even fans are going to feel this one for a while. However, Michigan State can take some solace in the fact that a season rocked by injury, a frighteningly deep conference, a brutal non-conference schedule and even tragedy, ended in the program’s first exit from the first weekend since 2019.

“I’ve been saying it over and over, we just continue to handle adversity,” senior forward Malik Hall said. “Coach always talks about what a Spartan truly means. You’re always fighting, you go down fighting. And that’s something that we did tonight. We didn’t give up. Thought we should’ve won the game, we just kept fighting to the very end.” 

That resiliency was on full display against Kansas State. Victory seemed likely for the Wildcats a handful of times throughout. Michigan State came out of the locker room down five, and KSU scored a quick four points to extend its lead.

MSU got up off the mat and punched back.

After a 7-0 run, Kansas State had a seven point lead with less than five minutes left in the game.

MSU got up off the mat and punched back.

The Wildcats had a two point lead with less than 20 seconds left in the game

Walker drove to the basket and notched the game-tying bucket with five seconds left in regulation. Again, MSU had picked itself up and countered with a punch of its own.

Ultimately, that resiliency wasn’t enough to overcome a Kansas State team with its offense firing on all cylinders, but it certainly made for an entertaining, if not agonizing, end to the season

“We just didn’t do enough to win the game, sadly,” sophomore guard Jaden Akins said. “(Izzo) was proud of how we fought — just didn’t do enough to get the win.”

Now, Sweet 16’s are not the gold standard for Michigan State. Izzo’s resume speaks for itself: he, and his fanbase, expect more. Making it to the second weekend won’t put this MSU team in the rafters of the Breslin or the history books

However, fans hungry for a deeper run and unwilling to reflect on the positive aspects of the season can look to the future. This is a MSU team with underclassmen that now have plenty of experience under their belts.

Akins ended the year on a high note and gained plenty of experience as a starter this season. With Walker potentially gone, a shift to the two could mean an increased workload and more important role with the team. 

Freshman center Carson Cooper, who was supposed to be redshirted at the beginning of the year, grew leaps and bounds this season. His performance against USC in the first round of the tournament highlighted what he can bring to the table: excellent screen setting, solid defense and the occasional slam. Cooper’s six points against the Trojans tied a career high for the young big and proved he could show up in big spots, even if it was just coming off the bench.

Forward Jaxon Kohler is another freshman that showed flashes of excellence in his first year playing collegiate basketball. While he had a relatively quiet tournament, he showed up off flashy post moves and scoring ability throughout the year. With another year in the weight room and on the resume, Kohler is a player to keep an eye on next season

A couple of juniors could play major roles on next year’s team. Topping that list is Hoggard. Michigan State’s point guard had some lows this season, but the highs impressed. He was excellent in MSU’s loss to Kansas State, scoring a team high 25 points and notching assists

Junior center Mady Sissoko will be more of a question mark. He’s struggled with consistency all year; he was stellar in the upset victory over Marquette, scoring eight points, grabbing 10 boards and blocking two key shots down the stretch. However, he’s also had games that feature multiple turnovers and almost no offensive production. Sissoko has an important role to play on next year’s squad, if he can find some consistency

There’s also a chance that some of the seniors make a return. Hall and Walker each have a year of COVID-19 eligibility under their belts. Even graduate forward Joey Hauser could technically come back if he filed a request with the NCAA to make up for his freshman season at Marquette, where he was redshirted due to injury

Such a gut wrenching end to the year could have an effect on those players with choices to make in the offseason.

“It’s definitely something that makes me feel like I have unfinished business,” Hall said. “I’m not going to say if I’m coming back or not, I’m even at that point yet. I’m just trying to process all of this and understand how I feel about it.”

That experience combined with an incoming recruiting class that ranks third in the nation should spark some excitement among the fanbase. Michigan State is a team that now has some experience in the tournament and a few battle-tested underclassmen. Next year’s squad should be a hungry one. 

“This is the farthest I’ve been in the tournament, but I feel like we could have went even farther,” Akins said. “I’m not satisfied with it. We’ve got to chalk it up as a lesson.” 

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