1. MSU wasted a chance to win a game it could have
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Michigan State didn’t deserve to win that game. Maybe that’ll lessen the sting.
A win at Illinois would have a been a massive boost in the Big Ten title race. Then again, the MSU team we saw for quite a while Tuesday night isn’t winning a Big Ten title.
For about 31 minutes Friday, the Spartans had nothing going against a shorthanded Illinois team, playing without its mammoth big fella, Kofi Cockburn, and gifted guard Andre Curbelo. Then, through grit and defense and occasionally palatable offense, MSU grinded out a 16-4 run to finish the game.
Only to lose 56-55.
Malik Hall missed the free throw he meant to make and made the one he meant to miss, with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. It was that sort of game.
So many possessions wasted. It never should have come down to Hall’s free throws.
I’m not saying MSU would have been better off facing the Illini with Cockburn and Curbelo, but it would have been a different game, at least. MSU couldn’t have been any worse for most of it.
MSU might come to regret this loss — given the circumstances. But the bigger issue is the dip in quality of play. The Spartans reminded us that, pound for pound, talent for talent, they’re not going to overwhelm hardly anyone in the Big Ten. They’ve got to be better collectively. They’ve got to do it with energy and depth and good players that can measure up, but they aren’t going to dominate and or intimidate their opponents. They have to out-purpose their opponent. That happened at Wisconsin. It didn’t at Illinois. Nor against Northwestern. And they lost two games they could have won long before the last-second free throws.
MSU shot 34% and had more turnovers (11) than assists (nine). No one played especially well offensively. MSU has a number of guys that can hurt you, but none that scare you. The latter showed up Tuesday.
2. MSU needs better play, consistency at point guard
A few days after MSU’s two point guards combined for 24 points, 10 assists, four turnovers and three assists at Wisconsin, they combined for nine points, eight assists, five turnovers and one steal at Illinois.
And while some of MSU’s struggles were on its shooters, who did little to lift the Spartans offensively, MSU has to get more out of Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard running the show.
Walker did some good things late in the game, seemed to settle in and run the team well. That’s got to happen earlier for him if MSU is going to win consistently. Walker finished with nine points, six assists and three turnovers. He had a couple buckets down the stretch in the second half that kept the Spartans within reach. This is two straight games where he’s put together good second halves after struggling in the first 20 minutes. MSU had some real movement and urgency late in the game. He was a big part of that. He needs to get MSU to that place about 30 minutes earlier. He’s the point guard.
For Hoggard, it’s about consistency. And this wasn’t it. He played such an outstanding game against the Badgers, but didn’t score or get to the free-throw line Tuesday. He was 8-for-10 from the stripe last Friday and had one turnover in 25 minutes. He only had two in 16 Tuesday, but one was an old habit — driving right into trouble in the lane, just as the Spartans were making a move late in the game. That possession, it turned out, mattered.
The problem with showing what you’re capable of is that it changes expectations. And it should. Hoggard will be judged on a different level now. He didn’t reach it at Illinois.
3. Freshman thoughts – the Illinois edition
The problem with beginning to think you can count on freshmen is, well, you can't always. Four days after Max Christie and Jaden Akins looked so poised and had such an impact on the Spartans' win at Wisconsin, they didn’t look nearly as comfortable at Illinois. But you can’t put this loss on either of them. MSU had plenty of more seasoned veterans who had forgettable nights. Christie and Akins just couldn't save the Spartans or get them going.
Christie had, perhaps, his worst overall game of the season, hitting just 1 of 8 shots and not coming particularly close on several of them, while turning the ball over three times. He did have six rebounds, a couple strong of them efforts in traffic. So he didn’t disappear. He just seemed off.
Akins didn’t have any luck shooting, either, memorably missing one open 3 that rimmed out in the second half as the Spartans were trying to claw their way back. He did have a couple rebounds and two steals and played a game that wasn’t far off his norm. But on this night, MSU needed something more than his usual role to have a chance. Because nothing else was working.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State basketball falls 56-55 at Illinois: 3 quick takes