It’s been a troubling start to the 2023-2024 for the Michigan State’s men’s basketball team, which began the year ranked in the top five and has since gradually slid to unranked.
After losing 70-57 in an uninspiring performance at home against Wisconsin on Tuesday, MSU remains winless against teams that have been ranked in the AP Top 25 this season – an unforeseen beginning to what had shaped up to be a season full of championship aspirations.
This was supposed to be a Michigan State team battling for a conference title and No. 1 seed in March, not one that, for the fourth straight season, fights just for a spot in the 68-team field. It may only be early December, but there’s no doubt the Spartans have underwhelmed thus far.
“I wouldn’t blame any fan, any media or myself disappointed in how we’ve played to a certain extent,” head coach Tom Izzo said.
Luckily for Izzo and his squad, a trip to Nebraska this coming weekend to take on a lower-level conference opponent in the Cornhuskers presents them with the opportunity to regain confidence and dig deeper into its identity.
The 4-4 Spartans are in a precarious position after falling at home to Wisconsin – a loss to Nebraska to start conference play 0-2 would make a potential road to the Big Ten regular-season title much more difficult.
Izzo and MSU fans alike have seen what the Spartans’ core is capable of. Guards A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins played the best basketball of their college careers, while forward Malik Hall and center Mady Sissoko learned how to play their roles effectively in MSU’s run to the Sweet 16 a year ago. Izzo knows that they’re capable of putting it together with his heralded freshman.
“We’re not that far off,” Izzo said. “We’re not playing as good as I want to. Everybody that’s disappointed ain’t half as disappointed as I am. But I still believe in this team because I believe in what I saw last year.”
MSU was right there in games against Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin – each contest featured at least a stretch where the Spartans were as advertised from the offseason. But slow starts coupled with sloppy finishes were the reason they lost all three. Izzo said his team understands how good it is at its best.
But, for MSU to get where it wants to be, much of the onus falls on Akins. The Spartans began playing to their potential last March when he solidified his role as a spot-up shooter and perimeter defender. His sub-30 percent shooting from behind the arc is among the reasons behind MSU’s struggles so far this season.
The Spartans’ second-best shooter, Akins needs to find his rhythm if MSU is to accomplish what it set out to achieve this summer.
“He’s got to make shots,” Izzo said of Akins. “That’s his job.”
Chief among MSU’s priorities against Nebraska is starting positive. The Spartans have dug themselves a hole to climb out of in each of their four losses this season – they can ill afford another sloppy start on the road against Cornhuskers if they want to take care of business.
Nebraska is a 7-2 team, like MSU, in search of its signature win to this point, with its losses coming against Minnesota and Creighton. Led by head coach Fred Hoiberg, a former advisor under Izzo when his son, Jack, played four years as a walk-on, the Cornhuskers are a program looking to climb up the Big Ten hierarchy in the new age of college basketball.
“Fred’s got a good team,” Izzo said. “He’s got some good players, he runs a lot of good stuff, so we have to be at our best.”
Husker guard Brice Williams has proven to be Nebraska’s go-to guy offensively. A junior transfer from Charlotte, Williams has averaged 14 points per game on 41 percent shooting from three. Also dealing with returning guard Keisei Tominaga, who torched MSU in Lincoln last season, Michigan State will be tasked with defending the perimeter against a quick and talented Husker backcourt.
Netherlands product Rienk Mast leads Nebraska in rebounding with over nine per game, though the Huskers aren’t a particularly big group. Forwards Juwan Gary and Josiah Allick compliment Mast in the frontcourt.
The Spartans, in danger of falling way behind in the Big Ten title conversation, will look to shut down Nebraska on defense and find enough flow offensively to come away with a much-needed road victory.
MSU and Nebraska tip off at 6:30 on Sun, Dec. 10, in Lincoln, NE. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.
Support student media!
Please consider donating to The State News and help fund the future of journalism.
Share and discuss “PREVIEW: MSU men’s basketball travels to Nebraska seeking its first Power 5 win” on social media.