Michigan State mailbag: Can the Spartans find an answer at point guard?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

With the Michigan State basketball team off to an alarming 0-3 start in Big Ten play, panic might not be setting in with Tom Izzo, but the same probably can’t be said for the fan base.

And considering the way the Spartans have played, it’s probably a fair reaction. The team has looked lost at times, and much of the concern centers on the point guard position as the Rocket Watts experiment is not going well and the rotation, as a whole, hasn’t come together, either.

Michigan State's Rocket Watts has struggled in his transition to full-time point guard.

In this week’s mailbag, we do our best to tackle the question of what Michigan State does with its point guard, who should be getting minutes at center and does Izzo keep using 11 or 12 players on a regular basis.

We also squeeze in a football question concerning who the Spartans have lost in the transfer portal and if it hurts the team’s experience level.

Question. How long until A.J. Hoggard starts at PG? — @jaker4061 @nybergjo

Answer. We had plenty of questions this week that all had to do with the point guard position, and several suggested it might be time to simply start freshman A.J. Hoggard. It was also suggested from @TimothyDonley that Michigan State just end the shift of Watts to point guard and hand the starting job to Foster Loyer while @ArtyFTW simply wants to know, who is the answer at point guard? As you can imagine, there are no simple answers to this one. What is clear is that the point guard position is proving to be the biggest issue on this team. Sure, the center spot remains a revolving door, but as the offense searches for an identity, it’s clear the uncertainty at the point is a problem.

Look, Watts is a shooting guard who has been attempting to be more of a point guard, but that mindset doesn’t come overnight. Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle. Watts looked good early in the season, but has not since Big Ten play began. And we know Loyer’s limitations as a defender and against bigger, stronger guards. Yes, he brings value as a shooter, but he’s probably a 15-minute type of guy. Then there’s Hoggard, a freshman who missed a couple of weeks of preseason practice and is just now seeing more regular minutes. So far, he’s looked to be more a score-first guard, and it will take some time for him to truly understand the offense, as well. The bottom line is, there’s no simple fix here. This is a process and so far it’s been a painful one, but I wouldn’t expect Izzo to simply hand the all over to Hoggard and let him go.

Michigan State point guard A.J. Hoggard is averaging almost nine minutes per game.

Q. Unless Foster Loyer gets a jolt of confidence, Izzo may be forced to start Hoggard. Was it a mistake taking him instead of (Jalen) Terry or too soon to tell? — @pfnnewmedia

A. We separated this one from the group because of the addition of Terry. To be clear, MSU didn’t take Hoggard instead of Terry. Terry left after Hoggard committed. Michigan State would have been perfectly happy to have both. And this one falls in the way-too-soon category when wondering if MSU ended up with the right guy. For what it’s worth, though, Terry is playing about 15 minutes a game for Oregon and had 12 assists in seven games. He’s also shooting only 28.6%, so I’ll hold off on making any judgments on this one.

Q. If Rocket (and the team) doesn’t have the year that he’d like this season, do you think he’d consider transferring, assuming his pro aspirations are not immediate? — @RafekDavid

A. When I first read this my thought was to dismiss it. Why would he transfer? But the more you think about this, it starts to make a little more sense, especially if the idea of playing point guard has been abandoned. Considering Hoggard will be in his second year and the 2021 class is made up of three guards — Max Christie, Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks II — the minutes will be hard to dole out, putting Watts in a tough spot. We’ll see how it all plays out, but if things don’t go well, I wouldn’t rule anything out.

Q. Why is Gabe Brown so underutilized? Seems to have the highest pro potential. — @bsik__12

A. We can certainly debate the pro potential, and considering Brown’s size and athleticism, he fits the part of an NBA player. However, you also can’t ignore the wild level of inconsistency we see from Brown on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s scored in double figures four times in nine games but has been held without a point twice — in the win at Duke and against Minnesota on Monday. And on the defensive end, he’s never been one of the Spartans’ better perimeter defenders, something that hasn’t changed much in two-plus seasons. As far as underutilized, he’s playing nearly 20 minutes a game and has taken the fifth-most shots on the team, including the third-most from 3-point range. I’m not sure that qualifies as underutilized.

Q. Will we see more Mady Sissoko with the lack of consistency thru the whole lineup? — @r_lambert2020

A. That’s a good question. I have to be honest, I didn’t expect Sissoko to get the early playing time he did at Minnesota, though Tom Izzo did say Julius Marble has been struggling over the holidays without getting into much detail on it. Could it be a one-game thing? Perhaps, but we know Thomas Kithier is what he is — a steady player but not one opponents have to worry about — while Marble and Marcus Bingham have shown flashes but little more. Sissoko is still pretty raw, but there’s a lot to like about his rebounding and ability to be a rim protector.

Q. Izzo said he is waiting for the Alpha to step up. Is there an Alpha on this team? —@nybergjo

A. The easy answer is, no. There is no Alpha on this team, and to be fair, Izzo isn’t waiting for it to happen because he understands the roster he has. What he has is a roster of a lot of really good players but none that are in that position to truly take over games when it was needed most. The loss at Minnesota cried out for that type of player as a discombobulated offense only got more tentative as shots didn’t fall. The question for Izzo and the staff is how to move forward with the pieces it has. There’s no doubt the offense can be better and was earlier in the year, but waiting for one player to jump up and seize control is, I believe, a fruitless endeavor.

Q. Any idea when we’re gonna shrink our active roster down? Playing nine or 10 guys in each game ain’t gonna cut it. — @TroyBrinkel

A. More like 11 or 12. I think everyone understands it needs to shrink, namely the head coach, but shrinking it for the sake of shrinking it might not happen anytime soon. Why? Because Izzo is still trying to find any combination that works. That was clear at Minnesota with Aaron Henry coming off the bench and Foster Loyer starting. Don’t expect that to last because Henry was bad off the bench while Watts appeared lost the entire game. It’s also why we saw Hoggard and Sissoko early. Izzo is pushing all sorts of buttons right now to see what works, and until he finds something, I’d expect we continue to see a lot of guys on a regular basis.

Q. When is Coach Izzo bringing back the War drill? They have to rebound better to help overcome their atrocious shooting. I still can't believe that no MSU player made more than ONE shot in the first half. — @spartanswill86

A. The reality is when you miss 50 shots — 52, to be exact — you’re bound to give up your share of rebounds. The bad part about the Minnesota game was the 10 offensive rebounds allowed. That speaks a little more to potential issues on the glass, something that gets emphasized when Michigan State goes small with Joey Hauser at the five and Malik Hall at the four. It’s a good offensive lineup, but one that can get beaten on the glass.

Q. Is the scholarship situation for next year more or less concerning? Any chance basketball allows overages like fall sports? Also, any update on the Akins/Bates situation? — @bpmcgant

A. My understanding is that scholarship limits will be relaxed when it comes to a senior deciding to use the extra year being afforded by the NCAA, and the only way that would apply is if Joshua Langford decided to come back. So, right now, MSU is sitting at 14 scholarship players with 13 available scholarships. With no roster attrition, it becomes a problem, but it’s a safe bet to assume there will be some changes. The most likely is players like Henry or Hauser leaving early for the NBA or perhaps a transfer, which could apply to just about anyone on the roster. By the time Christie, Akins and Brooks arrive on campus, there should be enough spots. If Emoni Bates or Enoch Boakye decide to reclassify from 2022 to 2021, well, now we have some juggling to do.

More: MSU signee Akins to finish senior season in Kansas after leaving Ypsilanti Prep

Q. Seems like a lot of experience went out the portal with only four coming back in. MSU looks to be awful young on '21. Is this by design? — @pfnnewmedia

A. Outside of quarterback Rocky Lombardi, I’m not sure where all the experience was that entered the transfer portal. Running back Anthony Williams, cornerback Julian Barnett and linebacker Jeslord Boateng would be the closest to landing in the “experienced” category, but all were primarily special teams players, along with long snapper Jude Pedrozo. So it’s not like Mel Tucker’s team was losing a ton of game experience. As far as by design, I’m not sure the plan was to get younger, but the plan has definitely been to move on from players they don’t feel have a future at MSU. It’s a harsh reality, but not one of the 13 players who have entered the portal appeared to be part of the team’s plans heading into 2021. You can argue if that is the right move, but so far there hasn’t been a single surprise, or a move that might leave you scratching your head wondering what’s going on.


Twittter: @mattcharboneau