1. That was a massive win for MSU. Shaky at times. But there’s no apologizing. This was needed.
PORTLAND, Ore. – The Spartans were searching for something, anything, anyone to get them going Friday night against Oregon. They found it in a lineup of Tyson Walker, Tre Holloman, Pierre Brooks, Joey Hauser and Jaxon Kohler.
They recaptured some chemistry and connectedness, as Tom Izzo later described it — two things that had made this Michigan State team much better than he anticipated at the beginning of the season.
That group produced a 14-0 MSU run in the final four minutes of the first half that changed the Spartans' night, its tournament and perhaps the complexion of its non-conference record. And that run was no fluke. Five straight stops. Six straight assisted buckets. Four of those passes from Walker. Brooks, Hauser, Kohler and Walker all scored during the run. Shots started falling, the defense picked up and the body language improved.
MSU looked like a functional team again. It's sometimes easy to overlook what subtracting an integral piece or pieces does to the entire operation. I remember MSU's first game without an injured Nick Ward in January of 2019 — before Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman became a magical duo. The Spartans looked disjointed trying to figure out how to play a new way, minus the mammoth presence in the middle that was so much a part of them.
This MSU team had a little of that disjointed look again early in Friday night's game. Until that unit, minus starters AJ Hoggard and Mady Sissoko, got rolling on both ends.
"The ball started moving a little bit more," Hauser said. "It's tough. You've got two guys that are down (Malik Hall and Jaden Akins) and you know some of the roles are changed a bit. You're looking, you're searching a little bit."
There was a long way to go before MSU put this thing away, a 74-70 win sealed through some shaky moments by six clutch free throws from Hoggard, Sissoko and Walker. But that stretch — from down 27-19 to ahead 33-27 — was oh-so needed for a shorthanded team that was having a miserable go of it and looked headed for a seventh-place game at the PK85 Invitational, a rematch with Villanova that I don’t think would have gone well.
Instead the Spartans (4-2) get the hometown team, the University of Portland, in the fifth-place game on Sunday, at Portland’s home arena. That game tips off at 2:30 p.m. local time (5:30 ET on ESPN). Portland gave North Carolina a game and then beat Villanova, so it’s not a gimme for MSU, but it’s a better draw than the alternative. And, if MSU can get the job done, it sets up the possibility of getting through November at 6-2, if the Spartans can also get past a yet-to-impress Notre Dame team on Wednesday night on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It took MSU a full game and most of Friday’s first half to figure out how to function without Hall and Akins. It took them that long to find some grit and mojo. And, still, it was barely enough against a depleted Oregon team that’s struggling itself right now. The Spartans did it Friday without their point guard, Hoggard, playing well. And with Sissoko in foul trouble and only making an impact in the second half, on the glass mainly.
There are no apologies. For MSU, that was a massive win.
2. A much better showing from Hauser and Brooks
As long as Malik Hall and Jaden Akins are out, MSU cannot win without production and grit from Joey Hauser and Pierre Brooks. Case in point: Thursday's and Friday’s games. Neither was very good on Thursday against Alabama and the Spartans didn’t have enough to keep pace. Friday, both were much better. Terrific at times.
Brooks, who drew the ire of Izzo after Thursday night’s game, scored 15 points, knocking in 3 of 11 3-pointers. That isn’t a great percentage. But these were largely good shots. And the makes were timely, including two made shots that were initially ruled as 3s and changed to 2s. He was engaged throughout on both ends. Not always great defensively. That’s not who he is right now. But the compete level picked up from a night earlier.
Hauser, after struggling with Alabama’s length and rolling his ankle a night earlier, was the catalyst behind a lot of the good that happened for the Spartans on Friday night. He scored 18 points, hitting 7 of 11 shots and 4 of 8 3s. He wasn’t hesitant. And just as important was his work on the offensive glass, where he grabbed four of his 10 rebounds. He had three assists, too. MSU needs that version of Hauser. Especially right now.
3. Freshman thoughts – the Oregon PK85 edition
Let’s start here: Jaxon Kohler and Tre Holloman were part of MSU’s best lineup Friday night. And that’s no small thing for a couple guys who are backups and role players and just figuring life out at this level.
Their understanding of their roles was part of the reason that 14-0 run happened and the ball started moving again, Izzo said.
"When we put the freshmen in, the ball moved better because people just knew who was needed to get shots and Joey and Tyson needed to get shots, and then Pierre, we thought if we worked it around, we could get him some shots," Izzo said.
Kohler made a positive impact for the second straight night, both offensively and on the glass. Oregon doesn’t have the sort of bigs that are going to test him on the low block. But I thought he was pretty good defensively, especially his help defense. He finished with six points, and three rebounds in 16 minutes. Unlike Thursday night, the Spartans were better on the glass when Sissoko was in the game — as they should be. But Kohler is making noticeable strides.
Holloman, too, is increasingly becoming a player who MSU can count on. Maybe even more so. It helps that he fits nicely on or off the ball, like Walker and AJ Hoggard, allowing him to play alongside either of them. He and Walker played well together Friday. Holloman ran the show a fair bit and made mostly good decisions — only drawing the ire of Izzo a couple times. Izzo doesn’t go after players that he’s not relying on. Holloman looks like he can handle it. Defensively, he had some strong moments, including a late-first-half block during MSU’s big run. His stat line doesn’t jump at you — no points, two assists, two rebounds and a block in 17 minutes. Nor does it explain his impact or Izzo's growing trust in him. Holloman was in the game for the final 39 seconds for his defense.
Carson Cooper continued to see minutes out of necessity. He had a dunk that gave MSU a jolt in the first half and an offensive rebound he didn’t get credit for, because he was fouled on the play. He’s hanging in there and looking significantly more comfortable than he did 10 days ago against Kentucky.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State basketball beats Oregon, 74-70, at PK85: 3 quick takes