State hoops: MSU women still battling despite depleted roster, COVID issues

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Before the season, Michigan State women's head coach Suzy Merchant didn't know how she was going to get all her players enough minutes to keep everyone happy.

That's not a concern anymore — as the Spartans' season of misery off the court (and some pretty gritty play on it, given the circumstances) took another hit this week. Doctors at Michigan State decided that junior guard Moira Joiner (Saginaw) would have to miss the remainder of the season.

She has been in and out of concussion protocol much of the last two seasons, suffering at least five. Joiner was limited to 12 games this season, and had limited minutes in many games she did play. She still was able to average 5.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists for a team that lacks depth at the guard position.

Moira Joiner is the latest Michigan State player lost for the season.

Before the season, Michigan State lost two starters to season-ending injuries: senior guard/forward Tory Ozment and junior guard Julie Ayrault.

The Spartans are now down to 11 available players, five of whom are freshman and one is a walk-on.

"I'm so bummed for some of them," Merchant said. "It's been one of those years. The unfortunate thing is not that just that you lost players, it's the kind of experience that you lost. That's the rough thing. They're all upperclassmen."

The injury issues have made Michigan State (9-8, 3-3 Big Ten) a long shot, at this point, to make the NCAA Tournament, which the Spartans have played in 10 of the last 12 times under Merchant. 

And that's to say nothing of the ongoing COVID-19 issue, which caused Merchant to miss Sunday's home game against Northwestern. It was supposed to cost her Wednesday's game at Indiana, too, but that was postponed because of COVID-19 issues with the Hoosiers.

Merchant, who avoided COVID-19 the first two years of the pandemic, is set to return Sunday for the home game against Minnesota. She was out of "COVID jail," or home quarantine, on Thursday.

So far, the Spartans players have avoided an outbreak, which will be tougher moving forward, given the lack of players. The margin for error is smaller to avoid a postponement. The Big Ten requires seven available players and at least one available coach for the game to go on.

"I'm going stir crazy," Merchant said earlier this week, while in quarantine

"I've never stayed in my house, this long, ever."

Merchant was glued to the screen during quarantine, watching a ton of game film. She watched Sunday's win over a good Northwestern team, 65-46, and couldn't stop coaching. She texted the bench multiple times during the game with scheme suggestions. Associate head coach Dean Lockwood was serving as head coach in her absence.

The Spartans are short on guard play, but fortunately for them, they have one of the best guards in the country in Nia Clouden. She scored 19 points on Sunday and is averaging 21.3 a game. Freshmen Matilda Ekh from Sweden and Deedee Hagemann from Detroit Edison are thriving while being thrust into bigger roles.

The road gets tougher with Maryland (Feb. 3), Michigan (Feb. 10 and 24) and Ohio State (Feb. 27) looming on the schedule, before the Big Ten tournament. MSU played Ohio State tough the game before Northwestern, before falling, 89-83.

"It's interesting," said Merchant, whose team isn't even on the NCAA Tournament bubble (among the last four in, first four out or next four out) in ESPN's latest bracketology report.

"We went from seven of our top scorers back, 84% of our scoring, to, like, whoa. From, how am I gonna keep them all happy playing 10 deep, to, like, oh my gosh.

"It's just hard going through it."

Jackson done

Not the best first year on the job for Central Michigan men's head coach Tony Barbee. The Chippewas are just 2-12, have dealt with their fair share of COVID-19 cases, and now their best player has left the program.

Guard Jermaine Jackson Jr., a big get when he transferred from Long Island University, announced this week he is leaving college to start his pro career.

An athletic department spokesman said Jackson has signed with a Mexican league team.

Jackson was Central Michigan's leading scorer, averaging 11.4 points in 11 games. He also averaged 2.7 assists and 2.4 rebounds and nearly a steal a game.

"I wanna thank CMU and the coaching staff for giving me a opportunity to play college basketball," Jackson wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. 

"But at this time i think it’s best for me to withdraw from school and start my pro career! All love."

Jackson began his career at Detroit Mercy, where his father was an assistant under Bacari Alexander — and interim head coach when Alexander served a seven-game suspension that season. Alexander was fired at season's end, Jermaine Jackson Sr. wasn't retained, and Jackson Jr. transferred to LIU.

He averaged double-digit points all four college seasons, with a best of 15.0 at LIU last season.

Central Michigan has only played two games this calendar year, and have had four postponements — including the home rivalry game with Western Michigan, twice. The game was originally set for Jan. 8 but was pushed back because of CMU COVID-19 issues. The new date, Thursday, proved to be no good, either. The Mid-American Conference will attempt to reschedule the game for a third date; they are also scheduled to play in Kalamazoo on Feb. 12.

Slam dunks

►Things aren't a whole lot better these days for the Central Michigan women (3-13), who are in the throes of a rebuilding year after making the last three NCAA tournaments. And now the attrition has started, too, with forwards Maryama Turkstra and Rachel Loobie entering the transfer portal this week.

►Things continue to be rough with the Detroit Mercy women's program, which had lost 20 games in a row (22 if you count the forfeits) entering Thursday's game with rival Oakland. The Titans have won 10 games total the last five seasons, under three coaches, currently LaTanya Collins, who inherited zero players.

►On the flip side, the Division III powerhouse Hope women have extended their nation-best winning streak to 61 games — tied for the third-longest winning streak in DIII women's history. Hope hasn't lost a game since 2019, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled the last two years.

►A tough loss for the Oakland women (7-8), who are holding their own despite COVID-19 issues and the loss of their coach, Jeff Tungate, to more back surgery. Freshman guard Olivia Sims entered the transfer portal this week. She averaged 5.4 points in 12 games, three starts.

►Northern Kentucky guard Kailee Davis, from Detroit Renaissance, was named Horizon League freshman of the week after scoring in double digits in victories at Detroit Mercy and Oakland. Those are her first two double-digit games in college.

►Michigan's Kim Barnes Arico was named ESPN's women's basketball coach of the week after the Wolverines (15-2), now ranked No. 8, thumped then-No. 8 Maryland, 69-49, on the road Sunday.

►Before last week's critical Horizon League games at Cleveland State and PFW, Oakland men's coach Greg Kampe wore a hat that said "Live Lucky." He's living well, his Golden Grizzlies still perfect (7-0) in league play, after sweeping last week's games despite limited minutes from star Jamal Cain (foul trouble).

►Oakland's Cain and Jalen Moore have made the midseason watch list for the Lou Henson Award, given to the best mid-major player in college basketball. Detroit Mercy's Antoine Davis did not, despite ranking second in the country in scoring at 23.9 points.

►The Western Michigan men are just 4-13, with just two of those wins against Division I schools and none in Mid-American Conference play (0-6). The Broncos led Akron, 73-63, with 2:40 left Tuesday night, but never scored again and lost, 74-73, to one of the top handful of teams in the league.

State power rankings


1. Michigan State (14-3)

2. Oakland (13-4)

3. Michigan (8-7)

4. Detroit Mercy (5-9)

5. Eastern Michigan (7-9)

6. Western Michigan (4-13)

7. Central Michigan (2-12)


1. Michigan (15-2)

2. Michigan State (9-8)

3. Oakland (7-8)

4. Western Michigan (9-4)

5. Eastern Michigan (4-8)

6. Central Michigan (3-13)

7. Detroit Mercy (0-16)

Games of the week


►Michigan State at Wisconsin, 9 Friday (FS1)

►Eastern Michigan at Akron, 7 Saturday (ESPN+)

►Michigan at Indiana, 3:30 Sunday (CBS)

►Michigan State at Illinois, 7 Tuesday (ESPN)

►Northwestern at Michigan, 6:30 Wednesday (BTN)


►Oakland vs. Detroit Mercy, 7 Thursday and 2 Saturday (ESPN+)

►Minnesota at Michigan State, 2 Sunday (BTN+)

►Purdue at Michigan, 6 Monday (BTN)

►Michigan at Ohio State, 6 Thursday (BTN)

►Michigan State at Penn State, 8 Thursday (BTN)

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984