1. The Spartans opened some eyes against Gonzaga and they should have won the game
CORONADO, Calif. – That was almost everything Michigan State’s basketball team could want in an experience.
A once-in-a-lifetime setting, a nationally renowned opponent, to play like you belong, showing the college basketball world that you’ve got a squad that’s serious. Everything other than the win. In a game the Spartans could have won. You might argue they should have won.
This will sting. Because they were the better team for a large chunk of Friday night’s game, done in by foul trouble and a cold-shooting second half (5-for-20) right down to a clunky final possession and a missed guarded 3-pointer by Jaden Akins just before the buzzer.
The Spartans, though, were entirely up for this — from their biggest question mark, center Mady Sissoko, through their presumed strength, their backcourt.
MSU’s 64-63 loss to Gonzaga on Friday aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, just off the shores of San Diego, was the sort of performance that changes how a team is seen and the possibilities for its season. This doesn’t look like a great Gonzaga team, relative to recent Gonzaga teams. But the Spartans might be pretty dang good themselves. They had a 12-point lead in the second half and it wasn’t a fluke.
AJ Hoggard controlled parts of this game. Tyson Walker, Malik Hall and Pierre Brooks all had their moments. Sissoko had many good moments (more on that below).
This loss ought to annoy MSU. Because it didn’t have to be. But we didn’t know that feeling was a possibility entering Friday night.
2. Sissoko answers the call
Mady Sissoko, I doubt you no more. For a guy who hadn’t done anything of note through two years of college basketball – other than break Ayo Dosunmu’s nose — this was unexpected. And impressive. A coming-out party. Sissoko on Friday looked the part of a quality Big Ten big man. When he was in the game, Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme was pretty well neutralized for large parts of the game. Sissoko had help, MSU’s guards digging down. And Timme eventually fouled him out. But Sissoko played a savvy game defensively. He stayed largely out of foul trouble until picking up his third with 16:46 remaining and used his frame and athleticism to dominate the glass, as MSU’s coaches hoped he would only in their wildest dreams.
If Sissoko didn’t get in foul trouble, the Spartans might have won that game by double digits. That might sound like attaching an “if” to a certainty — Sissoko and foul trouble. But this wasn’t your typical Sissoko-in-foul-trouble game. These weren’t dumb, overly physical or handsy fouls. A couple of them might not have even been fouls.
Sissoko had 14 points — on 4-for-5 shooting, 6-for-11 free throws — with nine rebounds in 25 minutes. The Spartans were 15 points better than Gonzaga when he was on the floor. He played under control offensively around the basket, never looking hurried, and, until Timme began figuring him out late, he was more than a bother defensively. He was a presence. And a presence all night on the glass.
There are two takeaways from Sissoko’s performance Friday night: He’s going to give MSU a chance against good big men; and MSU can’t win without him against a team with a formidable center. That’s amazing to think.
3. Freshman thoughts – the Gonzaga on-an-aircraft carrier edition
For MSU’s freshmen, this was that game when they learned just how far they have to go. That game when you see how much experience matters. When guys who were once them — AJ Hoggard, Mady Sissoko, etc. — a year or two later, are at another level.
Jaxon Kohler entered Friday night with big plans. He left Friday night humbled by reality. Drew Timme ate him alive in the post. To Kohler’s credit, he kept battling, tried to hang in there, came down with one strong offensive rebound. But the gap between him and Sissoko, in games like this, is clear. MSU was 14 points worse than Gonzaga in Kohler’s 11 minutes. That’s not great news for MSU. But it should have Kohler’s attention.
MSU’s other freshman big man, Carson Cooper, didn’t see the court. That surprised me a little, given how much Kohler was struggling with Timme when Sissoko was in foul trouble. But Cooper plainly isn’t in the rotation right now.
Tre Holloman, though, is. He played some important minutes, including deep in the second half in a tight game. That’s telling of Izzo’s trust in Holloman, who had his freshman moment — turning the ball over just before the half, not recognizing the situation with the clock — without it impacting his minutes. He scored the alley-oop bucket ahead of the halftime buzzer and, for a good stretch late in the game, was on the court as part of a four-guard lineup with Hoggard, Tyson Walker and Pierre Brooks. Holloman scored just two points on one shot, with one turnover in five minutes (though it felt like double that). He’ll be a part of things all season.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.