Michigan State had a roller coaster showing in final prep for regular season
East Lansing -- Coming off a blowout victory of Hillsdale College, Michigan State’s Spartan Men’s Hoops team welcomed in a fellow AP Top 10 team, the #9 ranked Tennessee Volunteers, to the Breslin for the second and final game of their exhibition slate. And after looking like world-beaters against the Division 2 Hillsdale Chargers, Sparty was put to a big test by the pride of Rocky Top (TN).
The game was played as an exhibition in an effort to raise funds for Maui relief after the popular Hawaiian destination was rocked with historic fires this year. Maui is of course the annual center of the college basketball world during the Maui Invitational, a national tournament played every year that sees some of the most prominent teams in the country traveling to Hawaii to take part in some of the best early season competition. After the August fires devastated the community, Tom Izzo and Rick Barnes, the legendary coaches of MSU and Tennessee respectively, announced they had agreed to the contest to be played and all proceeds to go to Maui relief.
The game was the last preseason test for the Spartans, and it certainly did not begin as hoped. Coach Izzo looked for defensive improvement across the board from his team, and the first 5 minutes of the game did not provide that. Tennessee jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead thanks to their relentless defensive pressure and burning-hot shooting. Dalton Knecht, the super-transfer for the Volunteers, played a big role in the early lead, amassing 5 points and 2 steals in a frenzy opening that saw Tennessee’s lead balloon to 18-1 before MSU officially woke up.
After 10 minutes of game time, the game was 30-12, thanks in large part to Tennessee ball pressure and subsequent easy transition buckets. However Spartan guards ratcheted up the pressure themselves, and a big reason was the attitude of ‘Tricky’ Tre Holloman. Holloman was noticeably aggressive on the defensive end early on, as was freshman Jeremy Fears. The two guards frequented Tennessee passing lanes and kept their hands active on strips that became transition buckets for the Spartans. Senior captain Malik Hall was a force on the blocks in the first half and MSU closed the gap by half, going into the break down 40-37.
Favorite sequence of the first half: Back to back post-ups by Spartan bigs’ Malik Hall and Carson Cooper. The run sparked a Spartan offense and kept them in arms reach. Big time when down 15+ against a top 10 opponent.
The second began with high energy from both sides. Freshman Coen Carr, who is still finding himself within the Izzo offense, came off the bench and provided 9 points on an efficient 67% shooting. His dunks were a point of need for the Spartans. He caught lobs, put-back dunks, and a transition dunk while guarded by multiple defenders. The emotion that his athletic play invokes will be noteworthy for a championship-hopeful team.
Senior captain Tyson Walker came alive in the second half. Picked by many to be on an All-American team at season's end, he exemplified exactly why with 5 minutes to go. The star guard drained a 3 to move MSU within 5 points, 72-77. He then slapped the floor, a moment meant to signal how “locked in” a player currently is. After Jeremy Fears took a charge on the other end, Walker took the ball and delivered another timely basket to move MSU within 3. The home crowd was in a frenzy. Then, Walker delivered another basket, this time erupting with emotion as he had just put MSU down 1 with only seconds remaining. After Tennessee knocked in two free throws to make it 85-88, MSU pounced a Volunteer inbound and stole the ball, resulting in a building-rattling 3 to tie the game. However, once again a referee whistle affected the game, a trend on the night. A questionable call on Tre Holloman with one second left gave Tennessee free throws, resulting in one make and a victory for the road team.
The referee's influence on the game was notable all night. Calls seemed to shade MSU, and the Spartan players had words with refs on more than a few occasions. Tom Izzo was seen corralling both Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard at different points in the game, showing just how charged up the exhibition game was for MSU. Emotional maturity is a hallmark of Izzo-led teams – this game serving as an early-season lesson for his latest iteration.
The clutch scoring of Tyson Walker, who finished with 22 points, is a continuation of his heroics last season, often finding himself in the role of late-game savior. The same is true of AJ Hoggard – both players figure to be integral parts of a team who is in position for another classic MSU March run.
Guard Jaden Akins contributed 12 points and steady defense on the afternoon.
Both coaches acknowledged the impact that funds raised from the game will have on the community of Maui in postgame remarks. “I’ve been there five times,” Tom Izzo stated when asked the importance of raising funds for the rebuilding destination, he went on to say of the treatment from the locals, “and we get treated so nice”.
Michigan State has lofty expectations on the season. They will come to realization when they open regular season play up on November 6th against James Madison University.
For the Volunteers, Dalton Knecht led the way with 28 points, and guard Jordan Gainey contributed 20 points.
Tennessee opens play against Tennessee Tech the same night.