After seven games in November to begin the year, the Michigan State men’s basketball team has had a bit of downtime before entering Big Ten conference play.
The Spartans began their season with an underwhelming 4-3 record, as the team began the year ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.
MSU bounced back nicely on Tuesday night in a 86-55 win over Georgia Southern to get back to a winning record. The Spartans came up just short against No. 3 Arizona the game prior in a 74-68 loss on Thanksgiving.
Michigan State will host Wisconsin in their conference opener on Dec. 5. The Badgers enter the matchup with a 5-2 record, but opponents in the Big Ten can knock off each other left and right.
The extended period of practice time, arriving at the first pivotal point in the season, has been described as beneficial by the players.
"I think it gives us a little break from, you know, playing other people," graduate forward Malik Hall said. "Constantly worrying about other people’s stuff ... it just gives us a chance to focus more on ourselves."
The Spartans are made up of seven upperclassmen, meaning a good portion of the roster has gone through the grittiness of conference play several times before.
Graduate guard Tyson Walker has stepped up to lead the team on the court through the first seven games. Walker is averaging 20.5 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game and 1.8 steals per game on 49.5% shooting from the field.
Walker has experienced high intensity basketball in the Big Ten for years now, and the 2023-24 season will be his third. Walker has improved each year and has cemented himself as one of the leaders on the roster.
As a player of that caliber, Walker will have to do his best to set an example for his teammates, especially the younger guards who are about to see a whole other level of competition ramp up in the Big Ten starting Tuesday.
"It definitely ramps up," Walker said. "Big Ten play is way different than everything else. The reffing style, the physicality is different. And possessions matter, as we've already learned that, but they really do matter because these games matter even more to what we are trying to do. So I just tell them 'keep your head on straight and just learn.'"
In the most recent game against Georgia Southern, head coach Tom Izzo experimented with his starting lineup. Sophomore guard Tre Holloman began the game at guard alongside Walker in place of senior guard A.J. Hoggard. Sophomore center Carson Cooper had started three straight games at center before Izzo rotated senior center Mady Sissoko back into the starting lineup against the Eagles.
The new starting lineup worked well in the 31-point victory. Izzo mentioned postgame following the win over Georgia Southern that the group who plays is going to shrink. Izzo's rotation consisted of around nine players regularly, and it will be interesting to note who starts to receive more or less minutes in upcoming games.
For Hoggard, the decision to be benched to start was more of a turning point for himself and the whole team.
"I got to be better," Hoggard said. "I got to be better for my team all across the board, offensively and defensively. That's no secret either. But you know, just continuing to be me and trusting my teammates, and then guys helping me through this little rough patch, has definitely been helpful for sure. It's going to click."
With three early season losses, the Spartans will look to get out to a hot start during conference play to build momentum as the season grows longer and tougher.
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