About a week ago, Michigan State’s offensive confidence seemed to be at an all time low. After ending the regular season on a high note, MSU looked choppy, lackadaisical and out-of-sorts in its one-and-done Big Ten Tournament loss to Ohio State.
The Spartans’ performance against USC was the exact opposite, with players from across the lineup contributing for a nice rebound from the offense. And it wasn’t a result of an out-of-this-world shooting percentage from deep or a takeover game from senior guard Tyson Walker. Interestingly, in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, much of Michigan State’s offense came driving to the basket in the paint.
When the offense has been clicking this season, it has almost always been a result of some hot shooting from beyond the arc. Much has been said about MSU’s great offensive showings in the final five games of the regular season; in those five games, the Spartans shot over 50% from three. Michigan State finished the regular season shooting 39.5% from three, the best in the Big Ten.
Friday afternoon against USC, the Spartans scored nearly half of their points (32) in the paint. The trio of guards - Walker, sophomore guard Jaden Akins and junior guard A.J. Hoggard - drove to the basket all afternoon, knifing and slithering through the Trojans’ defense throughout.
“A.J. took the ball to the hoop, Tyson took the ball to the hoop,” head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “Thought we spread them out a little bit on our ball screen stuff and we changed up a few things at halftime to slip those things. I think it helped put them on skates.”
Now, that’s not to say MSU didn’t find success from triples. Michigan State shot a solid 35.7% from three, nailing some daggers down the stretch to take firm control of the game. Graduate student forward Joey Hauser was especially lethal from beyond the arc, shooting 4-6 from deep en route to a 17-point performance. It was an important performance from a veteran player that has put up that kind of game on a bevy of occasions this year.
However, two of Michigan State’s most important performances of the afternoon came from underclassmen: Akins and freshman center Carson Cooper.
Akins' performance wasn’t especially surprising, based on how he ended the season. He averaged 17 points in the final three games of the regular season, notching a career-high 21 points against Iowa on Feb. 25. All while consistently being one of Michigan State’s better defenders.
Akins kept illustrating that growth in MSU’s first game of the tournament. He grabbed six boards and scored 12 points, highlighted by an athletic dunk in transition that lit the crowd on fire. Akins was also stellar guarding the perimeter, combining with Walker and Hoggard for a backcourt that’s extremely hard to break through.
“He just does everything out there,” Hauser said. “Offensively, he’s as talented as anyone. Defensively, he’s as talented as anyone. His athleticism is off the charts, he’s shooting the crap out of the ball right now.”
Cooper’s great showing Friday afternoon was a bit more of a surprise. Junior center Mady Sissoko started off solid, but after a rough stretch featuring some turnovers and missed opportunities, Cooper was subbed in to fill-in for Sissoko and help stabilize things. Thrust into the lineup, the young big had a great game on both ends of the floor.
“I thought that Carson Cooper did a good job,” Izzo said. “He’s big, and size sometimes matters.”
Defensively, he did a solid job projecting the rim and getting vertical if need-be. On offense, Cooper did an excellent job setting screens, dividing the defense for his guards and driving play towards the interior.
“He does a great job,” Walker said. “He’s come a long way, just learning the game, getting better. He’s a young guy, so just his growth, his progress that he’s been making has been phenomenal.”
Cooper also scored some points of his own, notching a pair of dunks and a field goal to tie his career-high six points.
Between the surprising play from the underclassmen, an unsurprisingly strong game from Hauser and a trio of guards unafraid to head straight into the paint for some tough baskets, Michigan State had one of its more balanced offensive performances of the season.
In addition, the offense benefitted from an energized performance from the defense. The Spartans turned the ball over just seven times and forced 11 from their opponents. They kept the pace fast in transition, always quick to apply pressure to the Trojans defense.
“We only turned it over seven times, which is seriously, from one of my teams, a North American record, if maybe not a world record,” Izzo said. “We got some points off turnovers. I thought we got some points off fast breaks. If you defend better, you get more fast breaks.”
Michigan State’s offense hasn’t been consistently effective at all this season. But Friday afternoon, when it mattered most, it showed up. If the Spartans are hoping to play next weekend, it’ll take more of the same from their offense Sunday against Marquette.