The first big test for this season takes place on the USS Abraham Lincoln as the Zags face Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic in San Diego.
The game is set to be the first real high-profile game of the season after buy games galore the first two days of action. It will be the fifth time the Zags face Michigan State, going 1-3 all-time and dropping the last two games 11 and 13 years ago (bringing us back to the Draymond Green era!). Here is a look at the modern Michigan State Spartans.
Meet the opponent
Michigan State Spartans (Big 10), KenPom #32
The Sparties bring a veteran core back after losing Max Christie to the NBA and making no major swings in the transfer portal. Tom Izzo sends out five upperclassmen to start, offering experience and complimentary skillsets when it comes to shooting and capable point guard play. While there is experience in the frontcourt and backcourt, it doesn’t feel like there is a star player to lead Michigan State to the March success they’ve experienced dating back to the late 90s.
There is no Cassius Winston, Green, Adreian Payne, etc., on this Michigan State roster. And while that’s not an inhibitor for success this season, it does make high-profile games like Friday’s a tough climb. AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker are both capable guards able to create for others. Hoggard played just 17 minutes against Northern Arizona and recorded 8 assists. However, they are not traditionally scoring guards combining for 17.2 points per game last season and just 15 points against the Lumberjacks on just 30% shooting from the field.
Joey Hauser will be the main offensive weapon for Izzo’s squad, leading the team with 18 points, including going 4 for 8 from three-point. Over a third of Michigan State’s points came from outside as they took 27 attempts, which should indicate how they’ll approach Friday’s matchup.
What to watch for
Hauser will look to bring Drew Timme out to the perimeter, which allows for cutters and space for the rest of the guys in green. The question remains in just how effective that approach will be. The weather forecast predicts mid-60s temperature and winds from 1-10 miles per hour. Does errant wind push the game into being a battle in the paint? If so, the Spartans could be in trouble.
The Spartans' frontcourt minutes are mostly logged by a group of guys that are 6-foot-9 and don’t have the rim protection they had last season with Marcus Bingham. That means Izzo and company will need to throw a bunch of different defensive looks to try and slow Timme down as much as possible. That becomes easier if the weather makes perimeter shooting erratic and inconsistent.
It’s difficult, however, not to envision a Timme game reminiscent of last year’s Texas game in the Kennell or the Creighton tournament game, where he scored 22 points on 10 for 14 shooting. Hauser does not have the length or size to disrupt what Timme excels at in the paint. Junior Mady Sissoko has simply not had the necessary minutes played to handle Timme on his own (averaged 5.2 minutes over his college career).
Izzo will likely have to play freshman Jaxon Kohler in spurts, which could be disastrous considering how visible Kohler has been processing the game in these early minutes of what looks to be a promising college career.
For the Zags, it will be interesting to see how aggressive this defense will look against a higher level of talent and athleticism. The platoon of guards relentlessly attacked the Ospreys’ ballhandlers, disrupting passing lanes and going over screens. Gonzaga created 15 steals with a total of 22 turnovers in Monday’s game. Worth noting is that 11 of those steals were recorded by frontcourt members, suggesting a collective team effort that was absent at times in the two exhibition games.
The rotation will be interesting to follow as well, considering the profile of the game as well as the matchup against a talented but significantly smaller frontcourt. We saw a run of the four-guard lineup in the North Florida game, with Malachi Smith playing minutes at the four with both Timme and Efton Reid.
Whatever we get from this Michigan State and Gonzaga game–considering the matchup and the venue–it’s sure to be a spectacle.