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‘Michigan State belongs there,’ Izzo relishes in next season’s high expectations, reflects on last season

April 12, 2023
<p>Michigan State head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo thanks fans at Nationwide Arena on March 19, 2023, during the second round of the NCAA tournament. Michigan State defeated Marquette 69-60 to advance to the Sweet 16.</p>

Michigan State head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo thanks fans at Nationwide Arena on March 19, 2023, during the second round of the NCAA tournament. Michigan State defeated Marquette 69-60 to advance to the Sweet 16.

Following a tumultuous year featuring injuries, a brutal non-conference slate, a grind through a deep Big Ten and an early departure from the conference tournament, Michigan State’s season finally came to a close just a few short weeks ago at the hands of Kansas State.

The Spartans knocked out No. 10 seed USC in the first round and upset No. 2 Marquette in the second to make it out of the first weekend for the first time since 2019. Senior guard Markquis Nowell and the Wildcats were responsible for the Sweet Sixteen knockout, sending MSU packing in an instant classic overtime thriller in Madison Square Garden.

“Under the circumstances, I thought it was a very good season,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “It never ends the way you want, unless you win it all, but I can’t say that was the number one objective this year, especially early when we had the injuries. It was about surviving.”

Despite the finish (and the sour grapes of a fanbase that saw an easy path to Houston beyond Kansas State), East Lansing is brimming with excitement; expectations are already sky-high for the Spartans heading into the 2023-23 season. With a handful of veterans and one of the most talented incoming freshman classes in recent memory, pundits are already pegging Michigan State as one of the top teams in the nation.

“I love our chances,” Izzo said. “I hope we’re rated high, that’s where Michigan State belongs. We belong up there if you look at the last 25 years. I like that pressure. I like those opportunities.” 

Hall, Walker back for more
The return of senior guard Tyson Walker and senior forward Malik Hall plays a huge factor in those rising expectations. MSU has its leading scorer (14.8 points per game) and top overall player back in Walker, and a versatile, veteran presence in Hall.

Michigan State knows what it’ll get out of Walker. He’s the team’s leader, taking over down the stretch repeatedly during the NCAA Tournament. Walker will be Michigan State’s “go get a basket” guy next season.

Hall, on the other hand, is more of a question mark. His 2022-23 season was riddled with injury, never really allowing the senior a chance to illustrate his true ceiling. However, those highs were still quite high at times. Hall was one of the team’s top defenders (especially on the perimeter) and his versatile scoring toolkit was a strong asset; he can post-up, shoot the three-point shot and occasionally attack the rim.

“He was injured all year, and I think not more severe than we thought, but more hindering than we thought,” Izzo said. “So when the season ended, he had minor surgery to kind of straighten out the top of that foot.” 

If Hall can stay healthy and consistent, he’ll be one of the team’s key pieces next season.

Freshman bring the competition 

The aforementioned swath of talented freshmen also play a role in the high off-season expectations for MSU. The 2023 recruiting class is ranked third in the nation according to 247Sports, featuring the likes of five-star point guard Jeremy Fears and five-star center Xavier Booker. Two talented and highly athletic four-star forwards, Coen Carr and Gehrig Normand, round out what looks to be a class that can make an immediate impact.

“We should have a pretty solid group coming back with a great group of recruits coming in,” Izzo said. “You put those two things together and [there’s] a lot of optimism for next season.” 

Michigan State had its fair share of production from underclassmen this season. Guard Tre Holloman collected minutes regularly as a back-up point guard, usually tasked with playing defense and distributing the ball. Forward Jaxon Kohler gave MSU a boost off the bench with his scoring ability in the paint. Center Carson Cooper stepped up during the NCAA Tournament, providing solid defense and a few offensive spark.

However, those three were never really competing for a spot in the starting lineup. At best, the trio provided a much-needed boost from the bench when the starters needed a jolt.

These freshmen are different. While Walker and guard A.J. Hoggard are just too experienced and talented for Fears to make his way to the starting lineup, he could rack up some serious minutes as the year progresses. Booker has a much clearer path to the starting lineup. Even if the duo don’t find their way to the starting five come November, they’ll certainly provide some new competition.

“Last year, we didn’t have as much pushing,” Izzo said. ‘This year, I think we’ll have more pushing. I think that’ll be good for us and good for the guys.”

The transfer portal and ever-shifting landscape of college basketball

The transfer portal hasn’t been a major factor for Michigan State this post-season (not yet, at least). Sophomore guard Pierre Brooks has been the only departure thus far and Izzo doesn’t expect any more names to be added to that list.

However, that has not been the case around the country. The transfer portal has been abuzz with new additions, as players young and old look to find success elsewhere. Even Hunter Dickinson, the towering and talented center that’s been the face of Michigan basketball for years now, has entered his name into the portal.

“I think Tyson coming back and Malik coming back is something to celebrate,” Izzo said. “And I say that because in this day and age you don’t know who’s coming back.”

While Izzo has dipped his toes into the transfer portal (fifth-year senior Joey Hauser and Walker being the prime examples), he’s not been afraid to criticize it. In his final press conference of the year, Izzo spent a good chunk of the time pointing out the flaws of the system.

“It’s good when you can have some consistency and continuity and some people to help other grow in a program,” Izzo said.  

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