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But before Michigan State basketball’s freshman can be linked to Denzel Valentine or Cassius Winston or any of Izzo’s other great point guards, Hoggard knows one component is essential for being the extension of his coach on the floor.
“When your teammates feel comfortable in you,” Hoggard said Monday, “you have no choice but to feel comfortable in yourself.”
One start into his college career, Hoggard showed he can make others around him at ease, too.
The freshman made his first career start and helped deliver their first Big Ten victory of the season, an 84-77 win Saturday night at Nebraska ending a three-game losing streak to begin conference play.
That only set the bar higher for what Izzo wants to see from his “quarterback” when unranked MSU (7-3, 1-3 Big Ten) hosts No. 14 Rutgers 9 p.m. Tuesday. It is the Spartans’ first game outside the USA Today coaches poll since Week 2 last season.
“He keeps his humility and keeps working,” Izzo said of Hoggard, who had four points, five assists and three rebounds in a career-high 23 minutes against the Cornhuskers. “I mean, it's not like he was Cassius Winston out there. But at the same time, I think he ran our team. I think he can make some plays on the break that come natural to him. And that's kind of what we're looking for.”
Junior Foster Loyer opened the year as the starting point guard, but his defense against bigger guards continues to be an issue. Rocket Watts showed some signs of being able to handle the point, but he is a natural shooting guard and Izzo wants and needs the sophomore to return to scoring more off the ball.
That opened the opportunity for the 6-3, 220-pound Hoggard, who underwent a knee procedure this fall that set him back some to open the season as he also worked to bring his weight down.
“I was kind of feeling good a couple weeks after I came off the surgery, getting back to feeling comfortable with my knee and things of that nature,” said Hoggard. “I just felt like I had to improve on the conditioning. I didn't take time off from conditioning when I was out and wasn't practicing.”
Hoggard did not play in two games this season, a win at Duke and a home loss to Wisconsin. He got brief action against Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame in the first two games of the season, then played 19 minutes with four points, four rebounds and four of his six turnovers this season against Detroit Mercy. His best offensive showing came against Oakland with 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting.
With MSU’s offense struggling in a 81-56 blowout loss at Minnesota, Izzo gave Hoggard, who responded with nine points on 4 of 9 shooting with an assist and two steals to earn the start Saturday.
“It takes a lot, especially playing point guard here is a little different than the traditional point guard spot anywhere else,” Hoggard said. “I'm kind of still learning a little bit, but I felt like I kind of picked it up a little faster.”
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Against Nebraska, the Spartans scored 13 points in transition and committed just 13 turnovers, only one by Hoggard. Though he had trouble keeping opposing guards in front of him, Hoggard also showed the ability to use his long arms to help him defensively with two steals and two blocked shots.
“I think he ran our team,” Izzo said of Hoggard against Nebraska. “I think he can make some plays on the break that come natural to him. And that's kind of what we're looking for. ... I think the best of AJ is we haven't even scratched the surface. He is getting in better shape, that's going to help him. He does some things instinctively. I think he could be a very good defender before he's done.”
Hoggard admitted his defense remains a work in progress, but he also flashed traits on offense neither Loyer nor Watts has this season. His straight-line drives into the paint challenged the Huskers’ big men to step up on him. One time, it led to a wrap-around pass to Malik Hall for a layup in transition. Another, Hoggard’s shot over two defenders caromed off the backboard, but Thomas Kithier got the rebound and kicked it out to Joshua Langford for a 3-pointer as the defense got out of alignment. Hoggard’s two baskets also came on driving layups in traffic.
“I think for the team as a whole, it opens up a lot of different options,” Hall said of Hoggard’s attacking off the dribble. “When you get that penetration into the paint, there's a lot of kick outs and people collapse. And the dumpoffs like the one that he gave me in the game, even if he does miss the layup and he just gets it on the board, it makes it easier for the wings to crash in and maybe get a tip-dunk or for us to get the ball and get it back out for an open 3. It helps it helps our team a lot for sure.”
Now, Hoggard takes his skills to a much tougher opponent. Rutgers ranks second in the Big Ten at 7.8 steals and forces 12.7 turnovers per game. The Scarlet Knights also have four dangerous scoring guards in Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young, who combine to average 63.3 of their team’s 80.0 points a game.
“I would say for me on the defensive side, not getting caught relaxing, ball-watching,” Hoggard said. “The Rutgers guards. I feel like they're bringing an aggressive attack towards us, so we got to be ready to go and ready to defend from the get-go and just be ready and down in our stance the whole time,”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball's A.J. Hoggard may be just what Spartans need