Why Tom Izzo believes this year's Michigan State basketball roster fits his style better

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EAST LANSING — When Tom Izzo looks back on last season, he remains careful to put the blame on himself while trying not to single out any of Michigan State's basketball players — current or departed.

There wasn’t enough toughness.

There wasn’t enough defense and rebounding.

There wasn’t enough offense and tempo.

It always comes back to trying to “put round pegs in square holes last year.” Particularly at point guard. And it led to unprecedented attrition from Izzo’s program.

What returns and what he added, Izzo believes, will make the Spartans more well-rounded.

“This team, I think, is showing that defensively we're better. And that's one thing we wanted to be from last year,” the 27th-year head coach said after Thursday night’s exhibition win over Grand Valley State. “Rebounding, I think we're better. Running, I think we're a lot better. Leadership, as far as on the court at the point. I think we have a lot of reasons (why) were better.

“But we'll find out shortly how much better.”

PREDICTING THE FUTURE: Who joins Max Christie as offensive force for Michigan State?

Michigan State's Tyson Walker, center, and Malik Hall, right, celebrate with Jaden Akins, left, after Akins scored and was fouled by Ferris State during the second half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Tyson Walker, center, and Malik Hall, right, celebrate with Jaden Akins, left, after Akins scored and was fouled by Ferris State during the second half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Ranked one spot outside the USA TODAY preseason top 25, MSU head to New York on Tuesday to face No. 3 Kansas in the Champions Classic, the first of a typically challenging nonconference schedule meant to figure out just what type of team Izzo has and what deficiencies need to be worked on before Big Ten play. Tipoff is 7 p.m. at Madison Square Garden (ESPN).

“It's gonna be a really good test for us right away. And we want it,” said freshman guard Max Christie, one of the highly touted newcomers. “We're ready for the test. We want nothing more than playing the best teams in the country right away.”

A roster reset

The Spartans rode a roller coaster during a pandemic shortened and disrupted season a year ago. A 6-0 start to nonconference play showed strong ball movement and depth in scoring, but it quickly dissolved into a three-game losing streak to open Big Ten play. Then came a 20-day coronavirus pause in January, which further complicated things. Izzo’s 23rd straight NCAA tournament appeared bleak after a mid-February loss at Purdue.

Somehow, Izzo and his team reworked the rotation in time to recover from a 4-9 start to league play and got it fixed in time to pull off top-five upsets of Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan, which highlighted the Spartans winning five of their last seven to get off the tournament bubble. But many of the problems from December and January returned, and they were one and done in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, a First Four loss to UCLA sending MSU home with a 15-13 record that was Izzo’s worst win percentage (53.6%) since going 16-16 in his first season back in 1995-96.

Then came the roster reset. Aaron Henry turned pro. Joshua Langford chose not to return for a sixth season. Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier and Jack Hoiberg all left via the transfer portal.

Enter the square pegs.

Izzo brought in Tyson Walker, a junior transfer from Northeastern, to solve many of the problems at the point. His calling card is his defense — the 6-foot, 175-pounder native of Westbury, New York, was the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year last season and finalist for the Lou Henson Award, given annually to the top mid-major player in college basketball. He averaged 2.4 steals per game with his pesky, in-your-face tenacity. Walker also averaged 18.8 points and 4.8 assists, which should bring stability to the backcourt and provide many of the missing ingredients that Watts and Loyer struggled to provide.

Michigan State's Max Christie moves with the ball against Ferris State during the first half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Max Christie moves with the ball against Ferris State during the first half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Sophomore A.J. Hoggard will back up Walker, looking quicker with offseason weight loss and more confident after a season in which he got pressed into starting duty midseason. He and freshman Jaden Akins are both 6-4 and provide a bigger defensive presence with quick feet to help minimize the dribble-drive penetration from opposing point guards that proved costly last season.

“I've seen a lot of change from last year,” Hoggard said. “A lot of guys are hungry, because we didn't like the way the season went last year. We're focused and determined to come out here and win and prove everybody wrong.”

The 71.1 points a game MSU allowed last season were the most by an Izzo team, surpassing the 68.7 allowed in 2016-17, and the program’s worst average since 1988-89 and its first season allowing 70-plus points since 1993-94.

One of the offseason goals was to improve high ball screen defense, and the trio of Walker, Hoggard and Akins putting more pressure up front appears to be paying early dividends for the big men, particularly senior 7-footer Marcus Bingham Jr.

“It's real different,” Bingham said Thursday. “I wouldn't say last year that we didn't have defenders. I feel like Rocket and A.J. did a good job defending the ball. But it's just talking and them knowing what to do when (the big men) step up and stuff like that. And then A.J. being quicker and Tyson being as quick as he is, they can get back in front right away. We got a good deal going.”

Michigan State's Tyson Walker, right, pressures Ferris State's Vejas Grazulis during the second half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Tyson Walker, right, pressures Ferris State's Vejas Grazulis during the second half on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Izzo singled out Bingham after MSU’s 83-60 win over GVSU for his improved interior defense as well. The Spartans need the senior center, along with Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, Julius Marble II and Mady Sissoko to show improved positioning in the paint after opponents grabbed 34.3 rebounds a game, the most yielded by an MSU team since 1979-80, though the Spartans did maintain a plus-3.1 advantage on the glass.

Sharing the ball

On offense, the Walker-Hoggard combination are hoping to accelerate the pace and transition game to increase the offensive production. MSU ranked 168th nationally in adjusted tempo by kenpom.com.

“I think it's really good, especially for a person like me who's just really fast with the ball and can pass it ahead,” Walker said. “It's just remembering to do it every time, that's the biggest part right there. But when you do it, it looks really good.”

The Spartans averaged an assist on 73.9% of their baskets in last year’s six nonconference wins. They assisted on only 60% of made shots in the final 22 games, shooting just 30.4% from behind the arc and 40.8% overall to score 65.2 points in those contests. Consequently, MSU scored just 69.3 points a game, its lowest average since 2012-13.

Izzo hopes better point play from Walker and Hoggard will help Christie, Hauser and senior Gabe Brown by getting them the ball in better catch-and-shoot position. And being able to mix and match different pairings on the perimeter and in the paint, he feels, gives the Spartans better lineup flexibility.

Michigan State's Max Christie, left, talks with head coach Tom Izzo during the first half in the game against Ferris State on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Max Christie, left, talks with head coach Tom Izzo during the first half in the game against Ferris State on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

“There are options,” Izzo said after the GVSU win. “We played the two points together. We played Joey and Malik, we wanted to see how that worked at times. Joey's smart enough to cover a lot of different people, and he rebounds pretty well. And Malik is a very good offensive rebounder.”

Tuesday will test that in a hurry.

The Jayhawks’ entire starting five is on individual national award watch lists, starting with Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year candidate Remy Martin. Center David McCormack is on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Watch List and Ochai Agbaji on the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award list. Martin is an Arizona State transfer, and both Agbaji and Wilson returned after withdrawing from the NBA draft.

After hosting Western Michigan on Friday in their home opener, the Spartans will travel to Indianapolis to face Butler at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on Nov. 17 in the Gavitt Games. And they follow a tough tournament in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas with a visit from Louisville for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. All before Big Ten play starts Dec. 8 at Minnesota.

“Within a couple of weeks, there's gonna be a lot of big games that we're going to play,” Izzo said. “And we're just gonna have to adjust both ways — if you win some, you're gonna have to look at that; if you lose some, you're going to have to adjust.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: Square pegs fitting square holes