Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State's gritty response in an 86-74 win at Wisconsin

·7 min read

1. That was one heckuva response by the Spartans

MADISON, Wis. – That should be the new standard for Michigan State this season. The new expectation for defensive hustle and grit and for intensity on the glass.

The Spartans won this game, 86-74, at Wisconsin for several reasons. Two reasons they should be able to count on: Rebounding and defense. You know, the two attributes that brought them so many Big Ten championships and Final Fours over the last 25 years. Two attributes that travel to any gym in the country.

There’s no excuse for anything less the rest of the way. MSU might not shoot 53% every night. Or keep it to eight turnovers over the final 33 minutes. It might not win them all. But that, Friday night, was the fight that’ll wind up in a rewarding season. Even if the Spartans never quite solve the turnover bugaboo. Turnovers, schmurnovers. You can overcome some of those if you compete like everything is on the line.

That was a heckuva response by MSU. Not only the entire game, but in all the moments where anything less might have swung momentum too far the Badgers’ way.

It began with the hustle back defensively as the Spartans turned the ball over on four of their first six possessions. That kept Wisconsin from running away with this and let the Spartans reset, hit some shots and hang in.

It was Jaden Akins' two 3-pointers in the second half as Wisconsin tried to make its move.

And then, when the Badgers pulled within 58-52 at the midpoint of the second half, it was two straight buckets by Malik Hall — the first on what’s become a new go-to move, a turnaround baseline jumper, then a put-back layup, the Spartan's third offensive rebound of the possession.

It was those offensive rebounds — 11 of them for 12 second-chance points, despite shooting at a clip that didn’t require many of them. The Spartans massacred Wisconsin on the boards, 39-20, six days after being out-rebounded by Northwestern for the second time.

It was Tyson Walker, who struggled mightily in the first half, not disappearing and playing an important role in the second half, after AJ Hoggard played superbly in the first. It was Hoggard throughout. More on him in a bit.

That’s how you win on the road, where MSU is now 4-0 this season. That’s true road games. This was the toughest atmosphere yet. Maybe the Spartans are better away from home. There’s an argument that it better fits what they need their personality to be. MSU isn’t good enough to win without playing like it has something to prove. The road forces the Spartans to play with that edge. They also aren’t a team with great spurt-ability — which creates the sort of runs that are knockout blows at home. On the road, the six-point surge, coupled with constant grit, will give you a chance. And that’s all you’re looking for in someone else’s building.

We’re still learning a lot about this MSU basketball team. I don’t think you can trust the Spartans yet in all avenues. Heck, they just lost at home to Northwestern six days ago and needed a last-second bucket to beat Minnesota at Breslin a few days earlier. But I think you can trust that they aren’t fazed by intimidating atmospheres. That’s pretty clear at this point. That’s one of several reasons the Spartans are again an intriguing squad in the Big Ten.

A 6-1 conference record after a win at Wisconsin sure feels a lot different than a 5-1 mark after losing at home to Northwestern.

MORE: Couch: A lot of good happened for Michigan State at Wisconsin – including the arrival of Malik Hall's go-to move

2. AJ Hoggard’s best half of basketball put MSU in a good spot

I don’t think A.J. Hoggard’s played a better half of basketball at MSU than he did in the first half Friday. He certainly hasn’t played a more important one.

With Tyson Walker struggling out of the gate, Hoggard’s unwavering confidence in himself paid off. He created a lot of MSU’s early offense, finishing the first half with four points, five assists and no turnovers and the game with 12 points (including 8-for-10 at the line), eight assists and one turnover in 25 minutes. His pass to Malik Hall — who had sealed himself into a good position — for a layup and 38-21 lead is the sort of play Hoggard hasn’t made a lot of this season. His aggressive transition bucket for a 27-15 lead was Hoggard at his best. And by then, he’d done a lot of good work already.

Perhaps the surprise of the game defensively was his work on Wisconsin star Johnny Davis, who he harassed several times and forced into three turnovers. Hoggard was, strangely, Davis’ Kryptonite.

“AJ has been in my doghouse a little bit, but we had a hell of a week together, really did, and really proud of what he did,” Tom Izzo said. “ … Sometimes you need a little attitude adjustment. Sometimes you need an overhaul. And I just said, ’It ain't working.’ And to his credit, I mean, it’s not easy to do, I mean he changed a lot of his game. He did not over-penetrate. He did not jump in the air. We put him on Johnny a few times early and late. He did a magnificent job. And so if I can post him up when he did bad, I should be able to tell him how proud I am that he responded.”

It’s performances like these, in a spot like this, that will go a long way for Hoggard in his MSU career. I still think Walker is MSU’s most natural point guard and MSU needs Walker at his best. But it’ll take this fierce version of Hoggard, too.

“I thought he ran the offense, like almost flawlessly,” MSU freshman Max Christie said. “He did a really good job taking care of the ball. He's been more under control, he's getting to the basket, uses his body to finish over bigger, taller, longer defenders. … He's just doing a better job of getting us into our spots and making us fall into our offense and taking care of the ball, which is one of the biggest things that we need.”

3. Freshman thoughts – the Wisconsin edition

Max Christie and Jaden Akins were exactly what MSU needed them to be Friday night. Christie was a shot-maker and locked in on Brad Davison’s hip as best he could and sometimes Johnny Davis, too. Akins was everything he’s been and more. Because in a big spot, as the Badgers were heating up themselves in the second half, he also became a shot-maker. His two 3-pointers from the left wing — both in rhythm and without hesitation — kept MSU out in front, 51-36, and then 55-41. The first of those began with Christie passing up a shot after catching a high pass and swinging it around for a better look.

Akins finished with 10 points and two rebounds in 12 minutes. He wound up being needed for his offensive juice off the bench. Christie, who hit both of his 3-pointers and 5 of 7 shots for 12 points in 33 minutes, also delivered when it was sorely needed. Neither player turned the ball over. Those are two kids who are ready for the next six weeks in the Big Ten.

Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State basketball takes it to Wisconsin, 86-74: 3 quick takes

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