1. Life for MSU is going to be a chore until Hall and Akins return
PORTLAND, Ore. – I don’t know what the Spartans did to the basketball gods late in last Friday’s win over Villanova. But they should apologize. Because someone, somewhere seems to have it out for them.
By the end of Thursday night, after Michigan State’s 81-70 loss to Alabama in the PK85 Invitational played without injured mainstays Malik Hall and Jaden Akins, Joey Hauser was also nursing a sprained ankle, Pierre Brooks was in the doghouse and Bill Walton was the best thing Tom Izzo had going for him.
“You’re our hero, Coach,” the eccentric Walton, who called the game for ESPN, said, passing by underneath the stands at the Moda Center in Portland.
“You’ve had a bad life then,” Izzo replied.
“Where was I?” Izzo said, trying to refocus.
Talking about a team that’s going to have to weather a tough stretch ahead shorthanded.
The lineups Michigan State put on the court at times Thursday night said everything about the Spartans’ situation.
At one point, MSU had Jason Whitens, Carson Cooper, Tre Holloman, Mady Sissoko and Tyson Walker on the court together. At least Walker was out there. Every possession has a chance when he’s in the game.
For as long as MSU is without Hall (at least three weeks) and Jaden Akins (likely out the rest of the weekend), life is going to be a chore.
Tom Izzo took a risk going with a smaller roster this season and it’s biting him and the Spartans in late November. We’ll see if turns out to be an issue in January and beyond, when it really matters.
Hall is out with a stress reaction in his foot, discovered this week. Akins, who’s just coming back from a more severe version of a similar injury, is sidelined after tweaking his foot last Friday. Izzo said after Thursday’s game that Akins won’t play until he’s able to practice two days in a row, which means he’s out for Friday night’s 9 p.m. local time (midnight back in East Lansing) tipoff against Oregon and, Izzo said, “doubtful” for Sunday’s PK85 finale against Portland or Villanova again. A rematch with Villanova — MSU really ticked off some cosmic power.
The Spartans are probably tough enough without Hall and Akins. They’s just not athletic enough, or savy enough defensively and don’t have the offensive range to create problems for teams like Alabama — a squad with great athleticism and length and with one of the better freshman you’ll ever see in 6-foot-9 wing Brandon Miller, who had 24 points and nine rebounds Thursday.
The Spartans ran out of gas and ran out of seasoned players to give them the sort of minutes you need to win a game like this. Alabama had more impact guys. MSU had Tyson Walker (21 points) and, after a subpar first 30 minutes, AJ Hoggard (who scored 18). Those two will keep every game at least somewhat competitive.
Injuries are MSU’s story right now. Hauser got banged up Thursday, twice, rolling his ankle. We’ll see if he’s impacted in Friday night’s game.
“We don’t have time to be injured,” Izzo said.
He probably shouldn’t tempt fate.
“It just changed the way we have to play,” said Walker, who made 9 of 22 shots and might need to take that many shots in every game for a little while, at least until Akins is back. “Some of the shots that (Hall and Akins) would have had, other people had to take them. So we missed them a lot on the court. … Both of them are really important for us.”
The Spartans have to find a way to grow during this. It’s a chance for their freshman and Brooks, especially, to take a step in their development. That’s the only potential silver lining.
2. Freshman thoughts – the Alabama PK85 edition (an important night for Jaxon Kohler)
You never want injuries. Foot injuries especially. But if something good is going to come from Malik Hall’s injury, it’s this: MSU having its three freshmen forced into significant minutes will speed up their development.
You could see it already Thursday night. There was no choice but to lean on big men Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper and point guard Tre Holloman. And there is something about knowing you’re needed, that you’re going to be part of things, that sometimes helps a young player or role player play more freely.
Let’s start with Kohler, who’s development in-season is critical to the Spartans’ long-term hopes. This was Kohler’s best game by a mile. We saw his knack for scoring around the rim, with put-backs and tip-ins in traffic and a little bit of nifty footwork on the low block. Basically, we finally saw some of the advantages he can bring. Until now, he’s just been hanging in there mostly.
“I thought he competed,” Izzo said of Kohler. “He missed some of those easy shots, but I thought he competed. He blocked a shot, got a couple of big rebounds. He did a better job on the ball screens than Mady (Sissoko) did, to be honest with you.”
That’s not great news for MSU’s starting center. But, hey, we’re talking about his backup here. I think it helped Kohler that MSU finally faced a team without an overpowering or crafty low-post player. Alabama had great length, but as Kohler said afterward, he’s dealt with athletes with more length for a while. Kohler finished with six points, seven rebounds, a block and an assist in 19 minutes, all by far season highs against high-major competition.
“The difference between the aircraft carrier (game) and today … it’s a lot different,” Kohler said. “Playing against all these great teams, I can get a little nervous at times, but I feel like at this point, it’s the standard, it’s the expectation — you’re going to be on a big stage. And I feel like I’ve gotten used to that and I’m comfortable with it and I’m comfortable with the guys and I’m comfortable with my role.”
Cooper had his moments, too, including a blocked shot and save just before halftime, in a one-point game. He also looked like a guy you don’t want to throw a wrap-around pass to yet on the baseline — here’s looking at you, AJ Hoggard. Cooper played 12 minutes, making a free throw, to go along with two blocks and two rebounds. He didn’t always look like a fish out of water. MSU is going to need him in a consequential game at some point this season. This experience won’t hurt.
Holloman’s plight is primarily that he’s behind a seasoned backcourt. With Akins out, his role expands. He did a lot of good in 14 minutes Thursday, including a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the left side when MSU was fighting to stay in the game. He also continues to make smart decisions. When he got the ball from Jason Whitens after Whitens’ first-half steal, rather than attacking two Alabama players in transition, Holloman pulled back and set up the offense, a possession that led to a score. He finished with six points on 2-of-3 shooting, two rebounds and a steal. His second-half foul on a 3-point attempt by Alabama’s Mark Sears, as MSU was crawling back in the game, down 11, looked like a bad call. “Even their fans booed,” Izzo said. Holloman doesn’t make up for Akins’ absence. But he’s ready to contribute good minutes and showed that Thursday.
All three of these guys figure to play similar roles Friday night and Sunday.
“It’s probably going to help them a little bit,” Izzo said. “And maybe help us sooner or later, because they’re going to get better.”
3. A tough night for Pierre Brooks
There was one theme Thursday night that Izzo intertwined with every other storyline — “Pierre (Brooks)” has got to get better quicker.”
Almost everything came back to that.
“I’m just upset because I don’t like when … you know people want to play, they can come in and talk to you about playing. They’d better be ready to play,” Izzo said. “Watch what you wish for. And he’s got a ways to go. And he’s got to compete. I mean, the other guys competed. I don’t think he competed like he needs to compete.”
I don’t know whether Brooks will stay in the starting lineup once Akins returns. Doesn’t really matter. For as long as Hall is out, the Spartans need Brooks to play major minutes. They need him to play well this entire season.
Izzo was particularly unhappy with Brooks on one critical sequence at the end of the first half when he missed a guarded 3-pointer that would have given MSU the lead and then didn’t close out on Brandon Miller’s long 3 just before the buzzer.
As Miller put it: “I feel like that was the change of the game.”
Brooks spent parts of the game guarding Miller, though MSU increasingly gave that assignment to AJ Hoggard as the game went along.
Brooks’ tough outing lasted for quite a while. But, with 6 minutes left, he stepped into a 3 pointer that cut MSU’s deficit to 11, giving the Spartans life.
Bottom line, though: MSU needs more from Brooks. And that begins Friday against an Oregon team that plays enough zone defense that Brooks’ outside shot will be important.
4. Wounded Ducks are next
If you think the Spartans (3-2) are suddenly mired in injury misery, meet the Ducks, MSU’s next opponent. Oregon (2-3), which has just eight available scholarship players, was blitzed by UConn on Thursday afternoon, 83-59, with the Huskies hitting 17 3-pointers. The Ducks are without three injured guards — two projected starters who’ve been out all season and now Keeshawn Barthelemy, who suffered a foot injury in Oregon’s 66-56 loss to second-ranked Houston last Sunday.
The Ducks have size, though, and good size at that. Their leading scorer is 6-11, 255-pound center N’Faly Dante and 7-foot freshman Kel’el Ware had 18 points and nine rebounds Thursday.
Not surprisingly, Oregon leads the nation in blocked-shot rate, per Kenpom. The Ducks’ weaknesses are in how they defend the perimeter and their own outside shooting — they’re just 27% from beyond the arc through five games.
Friday night’s game, which will technically tip off at midnight Saturday eastern time (and is on ESPN2), will be played next door to the Moda Center at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Win or lose, MSU’s game Sunday will be at the Chiles Center on the campus of the University of Portland, where the MSU women played Thursday, falling to fifth-ranked Iowa State.
Either way, I think MSU is likely leaving this tournament 1-2 on the weekend and 4-3 overall. Because if the Spartans beat Oregon, they’ll probably get a rematch with Villanova, which took a good Iowa State men’s team overtime Thursday. It’s a tough ask to beat a team twice in nine days, the second time missing two key guys. If the Spartans fall to Oregon on Friday night, they’ll face Portland on Sunday in a game they should win. Still, better to get the win against the Ducks and deal with Villanova a second time.
Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.