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Michigan State needs to tug on its old-school thread

PHOTO: Michigan State’s Tyson Walker searches for an open shot.

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By TOM SHANAHAN

PALM DESERT, Calif. – Michigan State’s befuddling basketball team dug another first-half hole, gritted out another second half rally – including a brief three-point lead – but ultimately the Spartans fell short.

Again.

Third-ranked Arizona led by as much as 15 points in the first half on its way to defeating No. 21 Michigan State 74-68 in the inaugural Acrisure Classic on Thanksgiving afternoon in the middle of a California desert.

Arizona looked like a national title favorite — the Wildcats have already beaten Duke — and the Spartans at times were their equal. They took a 66-63 lead with 3:59 to play before they reverted to first-half form and were outscored 11-2 down the stretch. But don’t tell Michigan State coach Tom Izzo about the comeback.

“The problem is everyone will tell them what a great comeback,” Izzo said. “The game wasn’t lost at the end. It was lost at the beginning.”

The pattern of slow starts followed by rallies started against Tennessee in an exhibition game the Spartans lost, 89-88. It has continued in the season-opening loss to James Madison, 79-76, and again against Duke, 74-65.

Poor first-half shooting is the common denominator. Hitting 2-of-20 three-pointers instead of just 1-of-20 against James Madison would have prevented the game from going into overtime. Hitting a couple more early instead of a deceiving final stat of 6-of-19 would have kept the Duke game closer before the Blue Devils pulled away.

Yes, hitting open shots would be an old-school fix for a team that still has an old-school thread to tug on. And that old-school characteristic has prevented the Spartans from falling apart after their slow starts and forcing fans to watch them painfully trudge to the final buzzer. Take No. 1-ranked Kansas, for example. The Jayhawks fell behind early against Marquette and never caught up, losing 73-59.

“It shows our resilience but being resilient all the time doesn’t work — as it showed tonight,” said point guard A.J. Hoggard, who was scoreless at halftime but finished with 15 points. “We’ve got to do a better job of starting off and continuing with the comeback mentality when we’re up and keeping our foot on opponents’ necks. We’ve got to start off how were supposed to and finish games the way we have been, and the outcome will be different.”

Michigan State’s roster that mixes talent among veterans and highly ranked recruits each time has found a way to stick together. They’re not blaming each other.

“I got a bunch of guys who get along well,” said Izzo before adding his ‘but.’

“We say all the time your best players have to play well. And they have to play like the best players.”

The inaugural Acrisure Classic on Thanksgiving was definitely a new-school basketball afternoon in the wild, wild west of the transfer portal and NIL.

Arizona is a new-school team with four starters who began their careers elsewhere. The Wildcats’ fifth starter is from Big Ten country, Kylan Boswell of Champaign, Illinois.

“I’m always telling these guys of the Arizona legacy they have to live up to,” said head coach Tommy Lloyd, who is only in his third year at the school.

The tournament MVP was Keshad Johnson, a transfer who last year led San Diego State to the Final Four. Johnson posted a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. Talk about old school vs. new school: Who leaves a Final Four team?

Caleb Love, who helped North Carolina to the NCAA title game two years ago, was the leading scorer with 17. Love’s season, though, is one of redemption. After North Carolina failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2023, he was the fall guy for the team’s lack of chemistry and shot selection.

Who knew they’d be this good before two Final Four players transferred in?

Early in first half there were more players on the court from Mali than from the home states of their respective universities. The Mali imports were Michigan State’s Mady Sisoko of Bafoulabe, Mali, and Arizona’s Ormar Ballo of Koulikoro, Mali. During that stretch the Spartans’ Jaden Akins of Farmington, Michigan, was on the floor as a Michigander, but none of the three Wildcats from an Arizona high school got off the bench all afternoon.

Adkins was joined in the starting lined up by Carson Cooper of Jackson, Michigan, but what does that say about high school talent coming out of Michigan? The state has a long history of legends, yet the only other two players from Michigan high schools were walk-on players, Nick Sanders, son of Barry, from Detroit Country Day, and Steven Izzo, son of Tom, from Lansing Catholic.

The Spartans have only one transfer, guard Tyson Walker, but they haven’t used their familiarity to their advantage. Walker led the Spartans with 18 points, but he was 0-of-2 from the free throw line.

But new school basketball is a marathon. In the old days, basketball season didn’t begin until the first week of December. The Spartans are already 3-3.

“I know what we can be,” Izzo said.

The Palm Springs area was never known for a major sports event other than the PGA Tour event, The Bob Hope Desert Classic.” Pro tennis followed. Now the area boasts a one-year-old, 10,000-seat arena that is home to a minor-league hockey team.  Michigan State-Arizona was the inaugural effort to develop a top-caliber holiday basketball tournament.

“It was a good game, a hell of a game for November,” Izzo said. “The intensity of the game in the second half … everybody got money’s worth. Hell of a tournament. It was put on well.”

There was one more old-school characteristic. At one point trying to answer why the team has been so up and down, Izzo said, “That’s a good question to ask the players.”

Michigan State still has an open locker room in an era of closed locker rooms. Walker, Hoggard, Akins and others were still available for questions. No ducking into the trainer’s room.

Izzo says that’s the way his mentor, Jud Heathcote, ran the Spartans, and he has continued to do so. The old-school thread is loose until it hitting open shots pulls it tighter.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Victor Hester

    Great reporting, we were there at the game. It’s been a disappointing start to the season by some of the veteran players but I don’t think they are that far away from getting on a roll.

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