As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by Torres Online. college basketball writer Zac Krull.
In case you missed it, we've already previewed the Memphis Tigers, then hit the Illinois Fighting Illini, Wyoming Cowboys and Xavier Musketeers. We also covered Dayton, a Top 25 team at A-10 Media Days.
Today, we turn our attention to the always interesting Michigan State Spartans, which have a ton of talent in the backcourt, new faces in the frontcourt - and the nation's toughest schedule.
Michigan State Spartans
How it went down in 2021-2022
The 2022 season had some ups and downs for a Michigan State team that wasn’t your vintage Tom Izzo squad, but still had plenty of moments en route to a 24th straight NCAA Tournament bid - second longest in college basketball behind only Kansas.
Coming into last year, Michigan State did lose several key contributors, including Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford and Rocket Watts, who were among their leading scorers in 2021. They still returned plenty of talent in big man Marcus Bingham, wing Gabe Brown and added a couple of interesting pieces in the backcourt, including five-star freshman Max Christie and All-CAA transfer Tyson Walker.
The Spartans did start season with a 14-2 overall record, with only losses to Baylor and Kansas who were both ranked in the top six in the country at the time, but never really could find consistency once league play hit. Starting in the middle of January, Michigan State hit a little bit of a skid, losing at home to Northwestern and that skid never really stopped the rest of the way. At several points last season, it seemed like Michigan State turned it around, but never was able to put together a stretch of consistently great basketball. The Spartans finished tied for seventh place in the Big Ten with their rivals Michigan and earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After a close victory over the No. 10 seeded Davidson Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64, Michigan State went toe to toe with Duke and found themselves up by three points with five minutes to go. Unfortunately, like many of their games last season, Michigan State just didn’t have enough to close it out and lost to the Blue Devils to end their season.
The frustrating thing about this game from a Michigan State perspective was the fact that it felt like for the first time all season, all of their better players stepped up and played the best they could, but they still ended up losing.
The fact that all these things went right, and Michigan State still couldn’t beat Duke, shows last year's Spartans team wasn’t good enough to take the next step, but this year's team could be a different story.
What You Need To Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: Malik Hall, Tyson Walker, Joey Hauser, A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins, Mady Sissoko, Pierre Brooks
Key Losses: Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, Max Christie, Julius Marble
Key Transfers: None
Key Recruits: Jaxson Kohler, Trey Holloman, Carson Cooper
National title odds via Betfred Sportsbook: +6000
Michigan State lost its top three scorers from a year ago and added no one in the transfer portal. Normally, that's a sign of trouble.
In Michigan State’s case however, losing those guys may not be the worst thing in the world and it is reasonable to think the Spartans can be even better than they were last season.
Even though he was the third leading scorer for Michigan State in 2022, Max Christie was the biggest loss for this Spartans team. A former five-star recruit, Christie had some ups and downs as a freshman at Michigan State, but still averaged 9.5 points and four rebounds per game. When he elected to enter the draft, most assumed he'd just test the waters and return for his sophomore season. Instead, he stayed in and was selected No. 35 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Christie's loss definitely stings. To be clear, being drafted into the NBA is a great accomplishment shouldn’t be taken lightly, however had Christie returned to Michigan State things could have become one of the best players on not only Michigan State but in the Big Ten. In that case, Christie could have followed the steps of guys like Ben Mathurin, Johnny Davis and Jaden Ivey who all returned to school as sophomores after decent freshman years just to become Top 10 picks in the NBA Draft the following season. He had that potential, but instead went pro and was selected in the second round.
Despite losing guys like Christie, Brown and Bingham, the older group of players returning to the Spartans should fit Tom Izzo and his philosophy pretty well. Heading into this season, Michigan State’s projected top players are somewhat unproven, but considering they have all been around the program this season should be better.
Tyson Walker is a guy that should be one of the better point guards in the Big Ten, following his great ending to last season. In addition, he has a backcourt running mate in AJ Hoggard, who has had his ups and downs during his first two seasons in East Lansing, but should see a starting role in the backcourt for the first time this season alongside Walker.
There were many times last season when Izzo would play both his ball handling guards at the same time and the more they were out there together the better Michigan State looked. Similar to Walker, Hoggard had some big moments towards the back end of last season including scoring 17 points against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament and 14 points in Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament victory over Davidson.
The other guy to keep an eye on in the Michigan State backcourt is Jaden Akins, who played only 14.8 minutes per game last season as a true freshman, but a breakout is likely this season with much more of an opportunity. Akins recently underwent foot surgery, but reports are that he should be back soon. He only averaged 3.4 points per game last season in that limited playing time but is also a former Top 60 recruit coming out of high school. In Michigan State’s only road victory against an NCAA Tournament team last season at Wisconsin, Akins scored 10 points off the bench, including two contested three-point shots, showing he can really be a player with a bigger role.
With several possible breakout players in that backcourt, Michigan State’s frontcourt isn’t going to blow anyone away, but they have experienced players who have been through the grind of what always is a very difficult Big Ten slate.
Let's start with veteran Malik Hall, who has played in 95 games throughout his college career, scoring just over 600 points. Hall has always been a guy that's looked like the perfect stretch four in today’s modern version of basketball and could be in for a big season. Hall’s three-point shooting percentage has gone up throughout each of his first three seasons in East Lansing, and if that trend could continue, Hall will be one of the more useful players in the Big Ten.
Alongside him, Joey Hauser will also be returning to East Lansing for his third season and his fourth season playing college basketball. Hauser struggled at times last season, not looking like the player we saw earlier in his career. With that being said, he played really well in Michigan State’s narrow NCAA Tournament loss to Duke and should still be able to knock down three point shots.
How exactly Tom Izzo uses Hauser will be something to monitor for Michigan State early. Izzo has the option of playing a small lineup with Hauser at the five, and in that case everyone on the floor for Michigan State would be capable of making a three-point shot. Hauser averaged 7.3 points per game last season which was the lowest of his career, but it was clear that he never really looked comfortable and hopefully a new role will change that.
With guys like Mady Sissoko, Pierre Brooks and Jaxson Kohler also in the mix, Michigan State has a really good top eight players who should help them compete at the top of a much weaker Big Ten conference compared to each of the last two seasons.
When you first look at Michigan State and see they lost each of their top three leading scorers from a season ago, many people will write them off but the Spartans looked their best last season at the very end when all their returning players like Walker, Hoggard and Hauser played well.
With one more season under their belt under a great coach in Izzo, Michigan State should be sneaky good.
There's no need to sugarcoat this: Michigan State has the toughest schedule in college basketball.
It might not even be close.
Don't believe me: In the first seven days of the season, Michigan State plays Gonzaga, Kentucky and Villanova. And that's just the beginning.
While the season normally starts with the "Champions Classic" that was pushed back for a year, allowing the Spartans to play their second game of the season against Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic. The game will be played on an Aircraft Carrier for Veterans Day, which over the years has become one of the best settings for a game in college basketball. The Zags of course entered the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll, and bring back a multiple-time All-American in Drew Timme.
After that it's off to the Champion's Classic in Indianapolis, where this year, the Spartans draw Kentucky. Like Gonzaga, the Wildcats have a returning All-American in Oscar Tshiebwe - and favorite to win a second straight National Player of the Year award. That is followed by a home visit from Villanova as part of the "Gavitt Games" the yearly Big East-Big Ten Challenge, in what should be the signature showdown of the event. Villanova is a team that is ranked No. 16 in the preseason polls and returns a majority of the squad from last year's team that made the Final Four, despite losing Jay Wright. At home, this game could be big for Michigan State’s confidence, especially if they come up short against Kentucky. If Michigan State can at least split those two non-conference games, they will be in a really solid position heading into Big Ten play.
Then, if that weren't enough, Michigan State is also playing in this season's pre-eminent mid-season tournament over Feast Week - the PK85 in honor of Phil Knight's 85th birthday. This year’s field is absolutely loaded, as the Spartans will open with an Alabama team that should begin the season ranked somewhere in the Top 20 and the winner will face either Oregon or UConn. They could face either Villanova or North Carolina in the next round as well.
Oh, and Michigan State closes the out of conference portion of the schedule with a game against Notre Dame - which advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament last year.
Even if the Big Ten is a little bit down, that out of conference schedule is incredible.
There won’t be a team in college basketball this season that goes through a more challenging 26 day stretch than what Michigan State opens with.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
Over the course of the last two seasons, no conference has sent more teams to the NCAA Tournament than the Big Ten. With 9 teams in the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons, the talent level in this conference has been among the best we’ve seen in any Big Ten season.
With that being said, a lot of that talent is now in the NBA and the league feels like it is wide open. Indiana is currently the favorite to win the league by most, mainly due to the fact that they return most of their players from last year's team that made the NCAA Tournament. Illinois brought in one of the best transfer classes in the country, making them dangerous as well.
Still, Michigan State shouldn’t be too far behind with their returning core group and legendary head coach. With teams like Iowa, Michigan, Rutgers, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State all set to take at least slight steps back after getting to the last two NCAA Tournaments, the top to middle portion of the Big Ten is ripe for the taking and Michigan State could easily be the team to take advantage.
The Spartans will end the season as a Top 25 team and the third best team in the Big Ten if not better, however the worry remains that they will have the most challenging non-conference schedule in the sport which will hopefully get them ready for Big Ten play.
No. 30 - Memphis Tigers
No. 29 - Illinois Fighting Illini
No. 28 - Dayton Flyers
No. 27 - Wyoming Cowboys
No. 26 - Xavier Musketeers
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