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MSU point guard problem gets some relief, courtesy of freshman A.J. Hoggard

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When Michigan State headed to Nebraska for Saturday night’s matchup, one of its most glaring issues was what to do at the point guard position.

Rocket Watts’ transition from shooting guard to the point hadn’t been going well as Michigan State found itself in a three-game skid, and coach Tom Izzo said during the week he was allowing Watts to shift back and spend the bulk of his time playing off the ball.

That left junior Foster Loyer as the most likely option to see an increase in playing time. However, after an 84-77 victory over the Cornhuskers, the first conference win of the season for the Spartans, it was freshman A.J. Hoggard who got the start and helped lead an offense that was far more efficient than it has been at any point in the last few weeks.

A.J. Hoggard

“I thought A.J. played pretty good for his first start,” Izzo said.

His numbers were unremarkable but solid, and quite frankly, solid is exactly what Michigan State needs from its point guard at this point. Hoggard scored four points on 2-for-3 shooting while handing out five assists and turning the ball over just once in 23 minutes.

And while Watts did get some time at point guard late in the game as one of Michigan State’s best free-throw shooters, it was the decision-making of Hoggard that helped the Spartans hold off a Nebraska rally after their 17-point halftime lead had started to dwindle.

The first came as Nebraska had gathered the momentum and pulled within 66-61. It’s at that point that Hoggard drove to the lane, forced the Cornhuskers’ defense to collapse and kicked out to an open Gabe Brown for a 3-pointer that pushed the lead back to 69-61. Later, with just less than two minutes to play and Michigan State clinging to a six-point lead, Aaron Henry grabbed an offensive rebound to extend a possession that ended with Hoggard weaving back into the lane, almost losing his footing and finding Thomas Kithier for a layup that gave Michigan State a 78-70 lead.

“He’s a great decision-maker,” Henry said. “He has a great, great feel for the game and that’s something you can’t teach. Credit to him for stepping up in the moment, and being prepared, and doing well. Obviously, he has places to grow on both ends of the court, but the thing is, he’s willing to learn and willing to grow and willing to listen. That’s going to carry him a long way.”

While it was against a Nebraska team that ranks among the worst in the conference defensively, it is worth noting that Hoggard took things in stride, rarely seeming rattled or playing like a “freshman.”

That gives Michigan State (7-3, 1-3 Big Ten) some optimism that it might have found its answer at point guard. There’s no doubt Loyer will continue to play a significant role, and Izzo has made it clear Watts will still see some time at the point.

“I think this could really help us taking some of that pressure off,” Izzo said. “Rocket can come in and play that position, too, some but maybe not as many minutes. So if I can get him 18 minutes at (shooting guard) and five or six at the point, now he still get his 20-some minutes a game, too, because we need him. He’s the best free-throw shooter on my team … and I just appreciate what each one of those guys can do. Every one of them does something.”

But Hoggard has proven he has a feel for the position, drawing multiple comparisons from Izzo to former Spartan Denzel Valentine. He’s worked hard on his conditioning and has dropped about 15 pounds since arriving on campus and Izzo is confident Hoggard has what it takes to take significant steps while also guarding against too much praise too early.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Izzo said. “His personality is he’s a funny kid, he’s fun to be around, players love him, coaches like him a lot, but he is kind of quiet. I call him a little bit nonchalant and that’s not what I’m used to at that position and that’s not the way it’s going to be. But I have to be understanding that it’s going to take a little time.

“But he does have the one thing that is a lot like Denzel — he just has that feel and a flair for the game. So, we're just gonna have to work at it and keep working at it and he knows that he wants to work at it.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau