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Michigan State mailbag: Is A.J. Hoggard the key to Spartans' resurgence?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Things feel a little more upbeat around Michigan State these days.

The Spartans have won two Big Ten games in a row, highlighted by the win over No. 15 Rutgers on Tuesday, and seem to have rebounded quite well from the early three-game skid that opened conference play

And in this week’s Michigan State mailbag, the optimism shows. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t some concerns. We do our best to tackle ongoing questions about the rotation while determining how good freshman point guard A.J. Hoggard can be and if Michigan State’s recent defensive revival is a sign it has started to figure things out on that end of the court.

We fit in one football question, too, as the transfer portal continues to grow.

Michigan State's Joshua Langford is averaging 8.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.

Question. Is a healthy (Joshua) Langford comparable to 99-00 Charlie Bell? — @SpartyFletch

Answer. His numbers will need to pick up a touch to get to the point Bell was at by the end of that season, especially in the rebounding category where Langford is averaging only 2.2 a game while Bell averaged five per game. Langford, at least at this point, also isn’t the defender Bell was, though if he gets closer to his pre-injury level he could be as good of a perimeter presence as Bell. And, of course, Langford doesn’t have the crew Bell did on that national championship team. But in terms of being that third guy, someone who needs to score 10 or 12 points a game and play solid defense, I think Langford needs to fill that role.

Q. What’s preventing Malik Hall from getting more minutes? — @mstelmas

A. Well, Hall is averaging 20.4 minutes a game — the fifth-most on the team behind Aaron Henry (29.6), Joey Hauser (23.1), Langford (24.2) and Rocket Watts (22.3). Three are starters, with Watts starting seven of the 11 games. I guess what I’m doing is answering the question with another question — how many more minutes are there available? Hall and Hauser play the same position, so it’s always going to be tough. The good thing is MSU has gone small at times with both on the court together, and Hall has the versatility to guard multiple positions. And Tom Izzo has been routinely praising Hall over the last few games for how he’s played. So while the minutes might not go up a ton, you can certainly bet they’re not going down at all.

Michigan State's A.J. Hoggard has started the past two games.

Q. A.J. Hoggard looks like the key they’ve been missing, no? The next Cassius? — @ThezeDaze

A. Let’s not get carried away just yet. Hoggard has been solid in his first two games as the starting point guard, but to try and predict he’ll measure up to the Big Ten’s all-time assist leader and a guy who likely will have his number hanging from the Breslin rafters is probably premature. What we can be sure about, at least for now, is that Hoggard is the point guard moving forward, and that is a step in the right direction for this team. It doesn’t mean Watts won’t play some point and Foster Loyer still has a role — though he played only five minutes against Rutgers — but it’s clear the Spartans have at least found something in Hoggard that is promising.

Q. When I wonder why Hoggard wasn’t given a chance sooner, I remember Cassius had to split time with Tum (Nairn) his freshman season. But how much was it that Hoggard’s procedure slowed him down in early practices? Or was it Izzo giving preference to upperclassmen Watts and Loyer? — @1012rbc

A. The minor knee surgery certainly slowed Hoggard’s progress, keeping him off the court for about two weeks. It also kept Hoggard from continuing to drop a few pounds from when arrived on campus, something he and the Spartans have been working on hard. In terms of the upperclassmen thing, I don’t put a ton of stock in that. I’m not completely dismissing it, because it is the point guard spot and Izzo wants players in that position he trusts, which explained the reliance on Nairn early in Winston’s career. But Hoggard was the starting point guard by the 10th game of his freshman season. That doesn’t seem like he’s being held back.

Malik Hall is fifth on the Michigan State team in minutes per game (20.4).

Q. We've seen really good defensive performances from this team against Duke and  Rutgers, but also really bad games. Where is the team in reality in terms of defense? I'd imagine playing Hall and Hoggard more would help improve there. — @ShartyJoe621

A. This has probably been the toughest thing to decipher through the first 11 games. Look, we understood what the challenges were for this team offensively, but to see Michigan State ranking at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in defensive efficiency was shocking, to say the least. The pieces are there for MSU to be a very good defensive team, and I think Hall is a big reason. I don’t think Hoggard is at this point, but he certainly has a chance to get much better. If Henry continues to play the way he has, and we see Watts and Langford play defensively like they have in the past, that’s a formidable group. The back end remains a question, though, as Hauser would be considered an average defender and the center spot is still a revolving door. Marcus Bingham and Mady Sissoko can be rim protectors, but right now, they need to be on the floor and they haven’t earned consistent minutes.

Q. Can we get some love for Halls defense? — @TheRealGirf

A. I just did. Honestly, consistency from Henry, Watts and Langford is critical, but Hall has been as solid as any frontcourt player Michigan State has. He’s rebounding at a high rate, can defend more than one spot and I’d expect to see his role offensively continue to grow, too. Through 11 games, it’s hard to be too critical of Hall.

Q. Curious about Julius Marble decrease in minutes and even Mady after great start. Wonder if any thoughts of Josh off bench and let Rocket start with AJ. — @MikiPatterson

A. The Marble issue, to me, is simply indicative of the uncertainty at the position. We know Izzo trusts Thomas Kithier, so he’s going to see consistent minutes. After that, it depends on who’s playing well in practice and what the matchup is. Bingham, as Izzo said recently, is an enigma. He has tons of upside but at what point do you realize it’s not happening? And Sissoko has a huge ceiling, but he’s still pretty raw. Marble, it would seem, would be getting more consistent minutes, but that clearly hasn’t been the case. Izzo said Marble struggled over the break, presumably about being away from home this long, but he added Marble has been practicing well and that he wanted to play him against Rutgers. But at this point, there’s simply not enough minutes to go around and, for now at least, Marble is the odd man out.

Q. If we can get Kithier a layup on every game’s first play, why can’t that be repeated several more times throughout each game? — @patrickragains

A. This one made me chuckle and think to the times Mark Dantonio would talk about people asking him, ‘Hey, why don’t you just run that play that scored a touchdown?’ As he pointed out, they’re all designed to work, but we all know they don’t. Same thing here. If every time down Kithier was open for a layup, he’d be getting a ton of layups.

Q. First year in a while I can't remember a dominant shot blocker on D. Has Izzo contemplated zone D with this undersized team? Couldn't tell if there was a scheme difference on D against Rutgers or if they just missed open shots. — @KDC3313

A. Another one that brought a smile to my face. Not because a zone defense isn’t viable, but the odds of Izzo implementing one are about as long as me appearing on “The Bachelor.” A zone could help, especially against some of the big men in this conference, but you’re also vulnerable on the glass and that’s not something Izzo is in for. I think it’s why you’re seeing him try to push Sissoko. He can be a dominant rim protector, but he needs to be able to not be a liability at the other end.

Q. Do you like the idea of the NCAA holding the entire tournament in Indianapolis? —@daveholz

A. I like anything that allows us to have an NCAA Tournament, and if that’s the best way, then I’m all in. And, selfishly, Indianapolis is an easy trip and it’s a great town for something like this. I’m a supporter of the Big Ten tournament playing in Indy more often, so yeah, let’s do it.

Q. Wondering if Coach had a ‘heart to heart’ with Aaron Henry to start playing like has the last two games and showing his leadership — been a difference maker? He’s starting to show why he will be a first-rounder this year. — @NorthShoreRalph

A. I’m not so sure there was one moment where this happened. As we all know, Izzo has been on Henry his entire career, so I doubt there was any sort of heart-to-heart. Henry is a pretty mature guy and understands what’s happening around him and the limitless potential he has. To me, this is simply the natural progression of a player who is finally starting to understand that for his team to win consistently, it needs him to be the best player on the floor.

Q. Why does Izzo in the last decade have such a blind spot about developing PG depth and succession? — @sportz5176

► A. Hmmm. I’m not with you on this one. To say there’s a blind spot would assume he’s unaware of need for a point guard. That’s simply not true. I go back to the 2014 class when Keith Appling was entering his senior season. Izzo went hard after the likes of Tyus Jones and Tyler Ulis, even making a late run at Quentin Snider. Of course, all three went somewhere else which led to the arrival of Nairn. Two years later, Winston arrived. After that, Foster Loyer was recruited, and while we can argue all day about whether it was the right guy to bring in, it was clearly to be Winston’s replacement. And in Hoggard’s class, Michigan State had a commitment from Jalen Terry, who bailed when Hoggard committed.

Q. My question is, if 20 players leave MSU football via transfer portal, does Tucker have to sign 20 other guys out of the transfer portal/juco? Assume 20 guys leaving hurts depth? — @GregSeraydarian

A. He can add to the roster from multiple places these days, and the transfer portal is one of them. Remember, the recruiting class isn’t finished as they expect to add some players before the February signing date, and there will be a handful of players that could have graduated but will be back for another season, highlighted by defensive ends Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley. As far as depth, sure, it hurts. For Michigan State, the cornerback spot has been hit the most with Julian Barnett, Davion Williams and Chris Jackson all departing.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau