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Spartans give A.J. Hoggard a bigger role with promising results

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo made it clear during the week there would be changes to the Spartans’ rotation, namely in the backcourt.

The effort to transition Rocket Watts from shooting guard to point guard was going to be backed off a significant amount in an effort to allow Watts to feel more comfortable instead of dealing with the pressure of running the entire team.

Michigan State guard Rocket Watts (2) drives to the basket against Nebraska in the second half.

That move meant someone would have to pick up some of the slack at point guard, and on Saturday night at Nebraska, it was freshman A.J. Hoggard who earned his first career start as No. 17 Michigan State ended a three-game skid by beating Nebraska, 84-77, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln.

“A.J. played pretty good for his first start,” Izzo said, “but he's got to play defense, too, and that's what we're working on.”

The numbers were solid for Hoggard, who played a career-high 23 minutes. He scored four points on 2-for-3 shooting, dished out five assists and turned the ball over only once.

“He did a good job,” said Aaron Henry, who scored a career-high 27 points. “He did a good job of distributing the ball and making plays, getting to the rim, becoming available. He's very intelligent and he has a good feel for the game. The sky's the limit for him and he's only going to grow as a player and is a guy that Coach has been wanting me to kind of be around a whole lot. I’m glad that he got the opportunity he did and he stepped up big-time tonight. It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but he did a lot of good things for us.”

It’s clearly early in Hoggard’s career and he’s only played significant minutes in the past two games. But Izzo likens Hoggard’s play to former Spartan Denzel Valentine, a bigger guard who had a sense for the game unlike many others.

“He has a great feel for the game like Denzel,” Izzo said. “Now, I said, ‘When you start, there's a responsibility to play both ends.’ And his conditioning has got a ways to go, which we knew. But I think the bright spot is you can see where he has a feel for the game, and a flair for it. He can get in that paint and he can make some plays.

“All in all, I was very pleased with how he played … If I had to rate him, we put him on the road, first game starting after playing maybe 20, 30 minutes all year, I thought he did a hell of a job, to be honest.”

The tooth about Hauser

Junior forward Joey Hauser had another off night, scoring five points on 1-for-4 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. However, he had a decent excuse on Saturday as he had a tooth knocked out from an errant elbow to the face in the first half.

Izzo knows he needs more from Hauser, but wasn’t about to get after him too hard.

“I’ve got to give him a little slack on that,” Izzo said. “But Joey's got to play better He's my big project this week because he's a really good player and just has been struggling. The tooth probably didn't help that first half. I don't know how bad it was, but he played after that.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau