With No. 6 Baylor ahead, how does Michigan State get back on track?

What a difference six weeks has made in East Lansing, Michigan.

Michigan State entered the 2023-24 college basketball season with hopes that the program could win its first national championship since 2000. Fast-forward to mid-December, and the Spartans are 4-5 after Sunday’s 77-70 loss to Nebraska, which ties the worst start by a preseason top-five team in the last 40 years (2003-04 Michigan State, 1986-87 Louisville). 

If the NCAA Tournament started today, Tom Izzo’s team would not even be in the field of 68. If there is one good piece of news, it’s that all five losses have come in Quadrant 1 of the NET rankings, but the Spartans really don’t have anything at the moment to negate that, except for a home win over a Butler team that will likely hold as a Quad 2 result. That’s what sets the table for a critical game for this Michigan State team on Saturday against No. 6 Baylor on FOX (watch on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

The Bears are off to a 9-0 start this season, sitting as one of the nation’s seven remaining unbeatens behind standout freshman Ja’Kobe Walter, impact transfer RayJ Dennis and stretch forward Jalen Bridges. That trio has led an offense that ranks No. 2 in the country, according to KenPom. 

While going up against a top-10 team could be viewed as a daunting task for Michigan State, it is also the one remaining chance for the Spartans to post a significant résumé-building, non-conference win, while also showing that this team isn’t simply going to be average and underwhelming this season. While Indiana State comes to East Lansing on Dec. 30, and the Sycamores currently rank No. 12 in the NET rankings, I would assume the system levels out some when they jump into Missouri Valley Conference play. You can’t bank on that game if you’re the Spartans to help boost their résumé.

Michigan State needs a win Saturday in the worst of ways, and desperate times will likely have to call for some adjustments from Tom Izzo and his staff. 

Here are five things the Spartans need to figure out in order to start a turnaround in what has been a disappointing season to this point. 

1. Go all in on small ball and spacing because it’s the best way for this team to score. 

The Spartans rank 12th in the Big Ten in scoring offense, and this is a team that returned 75% of its scoring and minutes from last year. Now, it’s not like Michigan State was incredible offensively a year ago, sitting in the middle of the league, but by the end of the year, the Spartans became really difficult to guard on their run to the Sweet 16. This season, the Spartans are 69th in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency, 42 spots lower than when they ended last season. 

Did losing stretch-4 Joey Hauser hurt this team? Yes, but the Spartans have too much experience among their guards to be struggling this mightily offensively. Izzo has typically been reliant on a traditional post talent at the center position, but here’s the conundrum: Five-star freshman Xavier Booker hasn’t lived up to the expectations surrounding him coming in. The thought coming into the year was that Booker could possibly solve the Spartans’ issues, and they would still have options with Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper. But with Booker only playing 10.7 minutes per game due to his lack of strength and defensive ability, that group is what it is. Sissoko and Cooper are combining for 7.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, and neither of them can shoot it.

There’s nothing new that Izzo is going to find out about Sissoko and Cooper if he continues to play them. I do think if Booker could be relied upon, he’d already have gotten more time. 

This is where fifth-year senior Malik Hall has to continue to step up, stay healthy and serve as a matchup issue for defenses. He’s coming off a season-high 22-point, seven-rebound performance in Sunday’s game against Nebraska. He also had an 18-point performance against Duke earlier this season, and while he’s not a consistent perimeter shooter, his 6-foot-8 frame can be difficult to guard. Going to Hall at center could be what is best for this team, because playing traditional bigs puts them at an offensive disadvantage. One other thought to consider:

Izzo has said 6-9 sophomore Jaxon Kohler is due to return from foot surgery soon, which would be big for the Spartans, particularly before they get back into Big Ten play in January. Kohler only averaged 3.0 points per game last year, but did show his ability to create his own shot and be an offensive threat with double figures in wins over Rutgers and Nebraska as a freshman. Look, anything can help the Spartans’ frontcourt offense right now, and if nothing else, Kohler can give MSU a different look, as he’s more capable on offense. 

At the end of the day, going with Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins, another guard and Hall could very well be the best lineup for this team right now. 

2. Letting it ride with the youth could be the most advantageous move.

Jeremy Fears is averaging under 15 minutes per game. Coen Carr, who can help create matchup wrinkles with Hall, is at 18 minutes per game, with that duo combining to average 8.5 points. They do different things, and I would lean toward Carr at this point as a player who could see his minutes increase into the 20s because good things seem to happen when he’s on the floor. Getting Carr more comfortable within the game could lead to him making more strides. 

Coen Carr cuts baseline for the ferocious jam.

Can Izzo get some more out of Fears? He can only go in one direction after Sunday’s scoreless performance with three turnovers. The appeal with this Michigan State team was that it returned so much but carried the upside to make it a national title contender because of a consensus top-five recruiting class. Perhaps sophomore Tre Holloman, who had a 10-assist game against Georgia Southern and has notched at least five assists in three games this season, will continue to raise the bar. This team needs more out of their freshmen. Can Izzo raise the confidence of those first-year Spartans in upcoming games against Oakland, Stony Brook and Indiana State? We’ll see. 

3. Playing with more tempo.

The Spartans are shooting just over 29% from downtown and average roughly five made 3s per game. What does that mean? Not much is coming easy from the perimeter, if anything. Michigan State is also playing even slower than last year, dropping from 306th in tempo to 330th. That has to change. This team is capable of getting stops with a top-25 defense according to Bart Torvik (21) and KenPom (18). Izzo’s best teams have been lethal at smothering opponents defensively and then dominating in transition to get easy baskets, or get fouled. That brings up another issue: free throw shooting. The Spartans are just 68% from the line, which is 12th in the Big Ten. 

I know they’ve been sub-300 in tempo the past two seasons, but that’s not how Izzo’s teams have typically played through the years. The guard depth they have, and the potential to go smaller, would mean a psychological change from the coaching staff, but it’s also the best move based on the personnel on this roster. The Spartans are having a real hard time offensively. To beat Baylor, they’ve got to guard but also generate some tempo, especially with their perimeter shooting woes. 

4. Will the three main guards – Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins – be able to combine great performances together? 

If I had told you before the year that Walker would start right where he left off and would be averaging over 20 points per game through nine contests this season, would you have ever guessed the Spartans would be 4-5? 

Of course not! 

But that’s where we stand. Now, Walker has totaled 17, 22 and 13 points in the last three games, but it bears noting that those performances have come on 18, 20 and 14 shots, respectively. That goes back to the efficiency piece of the puzzle for this team, but Walker doesn’t deserve any blame for the current circumstances. 

For me, it’s about Hoggard and Akins fully figuring it out and putting their best basketball together this Saturday and in Big Ten play for this team to take off. With Hauser gone, it wasn’t a revelation that the guards would have to elevate their scoring, and natural progression would suggest that could have happened. But a defense can leave Akins (29%) and Hoggard (25%) open from 3-point land right now and not really have to pay the price. After a slow start to the year, Hoggard has posted double figures in six straight games, while Akins was silent against Wisconsin last week before scoring 10 against Nebraska. 

The point is that it doesn’t feel like the continual evolution of these key pieces has happened. Will it occur? Perhaps, and if anyone can crack the code, it’s Izzo, but time is now starting to become a factor with, again, only Baylor providing the remaining major non-conference opportunity. 

5. The mindset of this team has to come along.

It sounds simple, but the Spartans have just played tight throughout the season, going back to the season-opening loss to now No. 20 James Madison. Walker scored 35 in that game, but Michigan State went 1-for-20 from 3 and 23-for-37 from the free throw line. Here’s the deal: I’m not going to say this team isn’t the hunted because everybody in the Big Ten wants to beat the Hall of Famer, Izzo, and his Spartans. They have one of the most powerful brands in college hoops, and any time they go on the road, it’s going to generate buzz. 

But right now, it’s about going into that Baylor game on Saturday and playing with nothing to lose, because let’s face it, the majority of the country expects them to lose. The Bears have wins over a good Auburn team that could be a top-25 squad and a solid Florida team, but they have not played the schedule Michigan State has played, and this game is in Detroit. 

Is the Spartans’ season dead if they lose this game and fall to 4-6? No. But it’s getting late. This game is about the difference between this Michigan State team making a significant run versus just qualifying for the tournament, or, of course, missing it altogether. 

At some point, the Spartans’ campaign has to turn. Let’s see what Izzo is made of.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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