Just weeks following an offseason filled to the brim with anticipation for Michigan State’s men’s basketball team, such expectations have quickly subsided.
The Spartans began the 2023-2024 college basketball season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 after complimenting its four returning starters from last year’s Sweet 16 squad with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. They fell to No. 18 after being shocked by James Madison to open the schedule and will likely continue to drop after Tuesday’s loss to the Duke Blue Devils.
However, the Spartans have a chance to get their wits about them during a two-game home-stand this weekend before heading to Palm Springs to battle the renowned Arizona Wildcats on Thanksgiving Day.
MSU’s unforeseen 1-2 start can attributed to many factors, chief among them its overall shooting.
In an overtime loss to James Madison, the Spartans missed 17 free throws. Over their first two games, they made just two out of 31 attempts from deep. While MSU tripled that total against Duke, a 6-for-19 showing from long range isn’t going to beat a better part of the teams on its schedule without substantial command in other categories.
In his press conference after the Duke game, head coach Tom Izzo said he’s not looking to change his team’s shooting approach but knows the numbers need to improve.
“I’m not going to do anything I didn’t do all summer. We’ve had a hell of a summer and fall shooting the ball and right now, we’re not shooting the ball that well,” Izzo said. “So I’m not going to sit here and cry about it. I’m going to say we got to play better, we got to make better shots.”
The Spartans had no trouble finding open shooters against Duke and Izzo wasn’t upset with their shot selection.
“Eventually, when you have wide open, wide open, wide open threes, they got to go in and they didn’t,” Izzo said.
Another worrisome aspect of this year’s MSU team is the play thus far from senior point guard A.J. Hoggard. Through three games, Hoggard has scored five points per game and is 5-for-26 from the field. He averaged nearly 13 points per game a season ago.
Following the Duke loss, Hoggard took ownership of his struggles, which Izzo said encouraged him.
“I like the fact we walked in the locker room and the first thing A.J. says is, ‘If I don’t play better, you should bench me. This is ridiculous,’” Izzo said.
The Spartans have plenty of time to turn things around. This weekend's matchups against Butler and Alcorn State will likely show what kind of resolve this MSU has. One thing’s for sure – it’s not a team lacking in talent or depth.
“I think we got a damn good team. I really do,” Izzo said. “We haven’t played very good. We haven’t played very good. We’re going to play good.”
Looking ahead to Butler, Alcorn State
Contrary to what many might’ve thought entering the season, the Spartans' Friday-night showdown against Butler will be no cakewalk. The Bulldogs, who feature former MSU forward Pierre Brooks II, have averaged over 88 points in their first three games.
“Butler is playing really well, scoring a lot of points,” Izzo said.
Butler senior guard Posh Alexander leads the charge for the Bulldogs, averaging 13.7 points, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game. A St. John’s transfer, Alexander will be yet another quick, shifty guard the Spartans need to account for.
Butler head coach Thad Matta did well in the portal this offseason, also signing senior guard DJ Davis from UC Irvine. So far in 2023, Davis has also averaged 13.7 points per game on 54% shooting.
Unlike a few of MSU’s opponents thus far, Butler has considerable size down low, led by two 6-foot-10 forwards and a 7-footer.
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The Bulldogs are coming off a subpar 14-18 season in which they finished 9th in the Big East, but have all the tools to compete this year.
As for MSU’s matchup against Alcorn State, expect Izzo to do some more tinkering with his lineups against the Braves from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Alcorn State is 1-2 this season with its win against Xavier University of Louisiana and losses to Arkansas and Arkansas State.
6-foot-7 senior forward Jeremiah Kendall has been the face of the Braves thus far, averaging a double-double with 24.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. The Spartans will likely dedicate their game plan to limiting his production.
ASU lead guard Byron Joshua has complimented Kendall with 13.3 points per game.
While maybe not the biggest, the two games are extremely important to the Spartan squad that’s struggled to live up to the hype through three games.
MSU takes on Butler at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 and Alcorn State at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19. Both games will be played at the Breslin Center.
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