A.J. Hoggard's composure helps carry Michigan State basketball to victory in rivalry

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — By the time Michigan State finished off Michigan on Saturday afternoon, there were enough storylines to last until whenever these rivals might meet again.

There was the bounce-back game from Max Christie, overcoming some recent shooting woes to spark Michigan State early in the game on the offensive end. There was Malik Hall, doing the same late in the first half and showing no ill effects of his free-throw miss early in the week that could have bailed out the Spartans at Illinois. Marcus Bingham Jr., even battling foul trouble, made life difficult for Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson. And Joey Hauser, a player who’s taken as much grief as any over the last two years, walking off the court during a timeout to the Breslin Center crowd chanting his name, “Joey, Joey, Joey.”

Michigan State point guard A.J. Hoggard had 11 points, 10 assists and just one turnover in Saturday's victory over Michigan.

But there was one more story line of No. 10 Michigan State’s 83-67 victory over Michigan that might have been the most impressive, one summed up perfectly by Hauser.

“This was an A.J. Hoggard game,” Hauser said.

At least at the point-guard position, Hauser was dead on.

In arguably his best game of the season, Hoggard scored 11 points and dished out 10 assists while playing more than 23 minutes. But just as important as those numbers were, was the fact Hoggard turned the ball over once, coming tantalizingly close to putting up a goose egg in the turnover column before an errant pass with 2:36 to play and the game firmly in hand.

Afterward Hoggard was asked if he was happier with the 10 assists — a career high — or just one turnover.

“The 10 assists,” Hoggard said.

He smiled and paused for second before adding, “and the turnover column. They go hand in hand.”

Indeed, they do, but figuring that out hasn’t exactly come easy for the sophomore.

To say his play has been inconsistent this season would be an understatement. Just the last three games show that as Hoggard had 12 points, eight assists and one turnover in the win at Wisconsin before going scoreless with two assists and two turnovers in the loss to Illinois on Tuesday.

That sort of up-and-down has existed all season — moments of outstanding play with spurts of out-of-control action that has had Izzo biting his tongue and clenching his fists. It’s the same sort of play the Spartans have been getting from Tyson Walker, which has helped lead to Michigan State’s offensive inconsistencies and troubles with turnovers.

So, over the past few weeks, both Hoggard and Walker have been meeting with Izzo and the coaching staff, namely assistant Mark Montgomery, to try and get things ironed out.

“It was driving my assistants nuts,” Izzo admitted Saturday.

But it’s clearly been paying off. Walker had a couple of miscues early, but he was aggressive getting to the basket and hit a big 3-pointer late in the first half. Only Hoggard’s impressive play in the second half — eight points and six assists in 14 minutes — kept Walker from getting more time on the floor.

So as much as the point-guard play led to Michigan State’s loss at Illinois, it was just as critical in the win over Michigan, led by Hoggard.

“I think the composure is the critical part,” Izzo said. “Playing on two feet, getting in there and spraying the ball out. He made a couple of great passes, figured out when he had the ability to slither in there and get a shot. He didn't have the charges he's normally had. I think he did play with a lot more composure, with the little floater.

“I was happy for him because it’s been, you ask Monty, it's been a tough week on those point guards, week and a half.”

The key, of course, will be taking what Hoggard has done for two of the last three games and making that what he consistently provides. The Spartans, who head to Maryland on Tuesday and Rutgers on Saturday, are still waiting for Hoggard or Walker to take control of the position, but the truth is, they could be just as good with the duo splitting the minutes.

Signs are starting to pop up that they’re getting close, and Hoggard’s play Saturday was further evidence. It’s exactly what Michigan State needs if it expects to stay in the Big Ten hunt and be a team that can make a deep run in March. The offense has been good enough and with Christie and Hall getting better each week, Gabe Brown likely to start shooting like he always has and the continued development of Bingham, point guard spot the wild card.

When the Spartans (16-4, 7-2 Big Ten) take care of the ball and get it moving, it’s easy to see a high ceiling for this team. On Saturday, Hoggard took another big step in proving he can provide that for the Spartans.

“We know you’ve got to limit the turnovers, but Coach always tells us not to play scared, just to play smart,” Hoggard said. “Playing smart, playing with passion and energy, is always going to be in a good flow. I think that kind of eliminates some of the things that we had to fix in the past. Playing hard takes care of itself. Playing smart, not playing too nervous but being mindful of the things that we’ve got to correct and get better at to this day. That’s just been a big help for me.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau