Couch: 4 quick takes on Michigan State's 81-70 loss to Alabama at the PK85 Invitational and Friday's game vs. Oregon
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Alabama guard Mark Sears, center, drives to the basket between Michigan State guard Tyson Walker, left, and Carson Cooper, center, during the first half of an NCAA collegiate basketball game at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Jan 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
1. Life for MSU will be a chore until Hall and Akins return
PORTLAND, Ore. - I don't know what the Spartans did to the basketball gods in the win over Villanova late on Friday. But you should apologize. Because someone, somewhere, seems to be after them.
At the end of Thursday night, following Michigan State's 81-70 loss to Alabama in the PK85 Invitational, played without injured mainstays Malik Hall and Jaden Akins, Joey Hauser was also suffering from a sprained ankle, Pierre Brooks was in the kennel and Bill Walton was the best Tom Izzo had for him.
"You're our hero, Coach," said the eccentric Walton, who called the game for ESPN, as he passed under the bleachers at Portland's Moda Center.
"Then you had a bad life," Izzo replied.
"Where was I?" Izzo said, trying to refocus.
Speaking of a team that has to endure a tough stretch outnumbered.
The lineups that Michigan State temporarily put on the pitch Thursday night said everything about the Spartans' situation.
At one point, MSU had Jason Whitens, Carson Cooper, Tre Holloman, Mady Sissoko and Tyson Walker on the court together. At least Walker was out there. Every possession has a chance when it's in play.
RELATED: Couch: MSU's Tyson Walker realizes his game translates to college basketball's highest level. 'This is who I am.'
As long as MSU gets by without Hall (at least three weeks) and Jaden Akins (likely the rest of the weekend), life will be a chore.
Tom Izzo took a risk going with a smaller squad this season and it bites him and the Spartans in late November. We'll see if an issue emerges in January and beyond when it really matters.
Hall is traveling with a stress reaction in his foot that was discovered this week. Akins, who is just coming back from a more serious version of a similar injury, is out after pinching his foot last Friday. Izzo said after Thursday's game that Akins won't play until he can train for two straight days, meaning he'll be out at 9pm on Friday night. Local time (midnight in East Lansing) tip against Oregon and, Izzo said, "doubtful" for Sunday's PK85 final against Portland or Villanova. A rematch with Villanova - MSU really ticked off some cosmic power.
The Spartans are probably strong enough without Hall and Akins. They just aren't athletic enough or defensively adept enough, and don't have the offensive reach to cause problems for teams like Alabama -- a roster of great athleticism and length and with one of the better freshmen you'll ever see at 6-foot-9 wings Brandon Miller, who had 24 points and nine rebounds on Thursday.
The Spartans ran out of gas and ran out of experienced players to give them the minutes it takes to win a game like this. Alabama had more influence, boys. MSU had Tyson Walker (21 points) and after a subpar first 30 minutes, AJ Hoggard (who scored 18 points). These two will keep every game at least somewhat competitive.
Injuries are MSU history right now. Hauser was beaten up twice on Thursday and twisted his ankle. We'll see if he's affected in Friday night's game.
"We don't have time to hurt ourselves," Izzo said.
He probably shouldn't tempt fate.
"It just changed the way we have to play," said Walker, who has shot 9 shots out of 22 and may have to concede that many shots in every game for a while, at least until Akins is back. “Some of the shots that [Hall and Akins] would have had had other people take them. So we missed her a lot on the pitch. ...Both are really important to us.”
The Spartans must find a way to grow in the process. It's a chance for their newcomer, and Brooks in particular, to take a step forward in their development. That's the only potential silver lining.
Alabama guard Mark Sears, front left, shoots in front of Michigan State forward Jaxon Kohler (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore. Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig mitchelldyer)
2. Freshman Thoughts - The Alabama PK85 Edition (an important night for Jaxon Kohler)
You never want injuries. Especially foot injuries. But if anything good is going to come from Malik Hall's injury, it's this: MSU, which forced their three newcomers to play crucial minutes, will accelerate their development.
You could already see that on Thursday evening. There was nothing left but to lean on big men Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper and point guard Tre Holloman. And there's something about knowing you're needed, that you're going to be a part of things, that sometimes helps a young player or role-player play more freely.
Let's start with Kohler, whose development during the season is crucial to the Spartans' long-term hopes. This was Kohler's best game by far. We've seen his knack for scoring around the rim, with put-backs and tip-ins in traffic, and a bit of deft footwork on the low block. Basically, we've finally seen some of the benefits it can bring. Up until now he has mostly just hung out there.
"I thought he was running," Izzo said of Kohler. "He missed some of those easy shots but I thought he fought along. He blocked a shot and grabbed a couple of big rebounds. He did a better job on the ball screens than Mady (Sissoko) to be honest.”
That's not good news for MSU's launch center. But, hey, we're talking about his reinforcements. I think it helped Kohler that MSU was finally up against a team without an overpowered or crafty low post player. Alabama had great length, but as Kohler later said, he dabbled with longer length athletes for a while. Kohler finished with six points, seven rebounds, a block and an assist in 19 minutes, all by far season bests against top-flight competition.
"The difference between the aircraft carrier (game) and today...it's a lot different," Kohler said. "Playing against all these great teams I can get a little nervous at times but I feel like it's the standard at this point, it's the expectation - you're going to be on a big stage. I'm used to that and I'm comfortable with it and I'm comfortable with the guys and I'm comfortable with my role.
Cooper had his moments too, including a blocked shot and a save just before halftime in a one-point game. He also looked like a guy you wouldn't want to throw a wraparound pass to on the baseline - look at that, AJ Hoggard. Cooper played 12 minutes and grabbed a free throw for two blocks and two rebounds. He didn't always look like a fish out of water. MSU will need him in a follow-up game sometime this season. This experience will not hurt.
First and foremost, Holloman's plight is that he's behind an experienced backcourt. With Akins out, his role expands. He did a lot of good in 14 minutes Thursday, including a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the left as MSU struggled to stay in the game. He continues to make wise decisions. Getting the ball from Jason Whitens after Whitens' first-half steal, Holloman retired and set up the offense instead of attacking two Alabama players in transition, a possession that produced a score. He finished the game with six points on 2-of-3 shooting, two rebounds and a steal. His second-half foul on a 3-point try by Alabama's Mark Sears as MSU crawled back into the game with 11 points looked like a poor decision. "Even her fans were booing," Izzo said. Holloman doesn't make up for Akin's absence. But he is ready to put in good minutes and showed that on Thursday.
All three of these guys play similar roles on Friday nights and Sundays.
"It will probably help them a bit," Izzo said. "And maybe help us sooner or later, because they will be better."
Alabama forward Brandon Miller, right, reacts next to Michigan State guard Pierre Brooks after scoring a basket in the second half of an NCAA collegiate basketball game at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore., Thursday, November 24, 2022 Has. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
3. A tough night for Pierre Brooks
There was one theme Thursday night that Izzo intertwined with every other storyline - "Pierre (Brooks)" needs to get better faster.
Almost everything came down to that.
"I'm just upset because I don't like it when ... you know people want to play, they can come in and talk to you about playing. You better be ready to play," Izzo said. "Be careful what you wish for. And he still has a long way to go. And he has to compete. I mean, the other guys competed. I don't think he competed like he needs to compete."
I don't know if Brooks will stay on the starting lineup when Akins returns. Doesn't really matter. With Hall out, the Spartans need Brooks to play vital minutes. You need him to play well all season.
Izzo was particularly unhappy with Brooks in a critical sequence late in the first half when he missed a guarded 3-pointer that would have given MSU the lead and then failed to close on Brandon Miller's long 3 just before the buzzer.
As Miller put it, "I feel like that was the game changer."
Brooks spent portions of the game guarding Miller, although MSU increasingly delegated that duty to AJ Hoggard as the game progressed.
Brooks' rough outing lasted quite a while. But with 6 minutes left, he stepped into a 3-pointer that reduced MSU's deficit to 11 and gave the life to the Spartans.
Conclusion: MSU needs more from Brooks. And that starts Friday against an Oregon team that's playing enough zone defense that Brooks' wide shot will matter.
4. Wounded ducks are next
If you thought the Spartans (3-2) were suddenly on the brink of injury, the Ducks are MSU's next opponents. Oregon (2-3), which has just eight available grantees, was blitzed 83-59 by UConn Thursday afternoon with the Huskies scoring 17 3-pointers. The Ducks are without three injured guards — two predicted starters who have been out all season and now Keeshawn Barthelemy, who picked up a foot injury in Oregon's 66-56 loss to second-placed Houston last Sunday.
However, the ducks are sized, and a good sized one at that. Their top scorer is 6-11, 255-pound center N'Faly Dante and 7-foot freshman Kel'el Ware had 18 points and nine rebounds Thursday.
Unsurprisingly, according to Kenpom, Oregon leads the nation in blocked shot rate. The Ducks' weaknesses lie in how they defend perimeter and their own outside shooting - they're only 27% from beyond the arc in five games.
Friday night's game, which technically ends at midnight EST on Saturday (and on ESPN2), will be played next to the Moda Center at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Win or lose, MSU's game takes place Sunday at the Chiles Center on the University of Portland campus, where MSU women played Thursday, falling behind fifth-placed Iowa state.
Anyway, I think MSU is likely to come out of this tournament 1-2 and 4-3 overall this weekend. Because if the Spartans beat Oregon, they'll likely get a rematch with Villanova, who brought a fine Iowa State men's team into overtime on Thursday. It's a difficult task to beat a team twice in nine days and miss two key players the second time. If the Spartans fall to Oregon on Friday night, they face Portland on Sunday in a game they should win. Still, it's better to win against the Ducks and face Villanova a second time.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared in the Lansing State Journal: MSU Basketball Falls at PK85 to Alabama to Face Oregon: 4 Fast Takes
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