Michigan State basketball is known as a program that likes to challenge itself in its nonconference schedule. Head coach Tom Izzo doesn’t want to play a bunch of pushovers in November and December, he wants to play opponents that will make his team better and prepare him for the grueling Big Ten slate.
The Spartans are 18-0 in their history against Oakland University, but this game – which has played annually for the past ten seasons, and 15 times out of the past 16 years – still carries a lot of value for Michigan State, according to Izzo.
“It’s a fun game, and you can say, ‘Yeah, you’ve won them all so that makes it more fun’ and it does,” Izzo said. “But the reason I keep playing it is because I think it’s a good game for us too.”
On Tuesday, the Spartans never trailed the Golden Grizzlies on their way to a 90-78 victory. But every time Michigan State made a run, Oakland punched back with a run of their own. Using an extended 1-3-1 zone and full-court ball pressure, the Grizzlies gave the Spartans a new look to prepare for and react to, something Izzo said will pay dividends down the road.
“It was good because we were going against a tough team, very well coached, played all zone and pressed us,” he said. “So, now we have another thing in our arsenal that we’ve done.”
The 12-point win wasn’t the smallest margin of victory for Michigan State in this series. In 2015, the No. 1 ranked Spartans needed overtime to dispatch Oakland. In 2010, Michigan State squeaked out a 1-point victory over the Grizzlies, while in 2013 and 2007, the margin of victory was 4 points for the Spartans.
“This year’s still a work in progress,” Izzo said of the 2021-22 Grizzlies. “There’s some more process that they need to go through to get there. Maybe depth hurts them a little bit, but I really like his team. I liked them on film. I told [Kampe] that before the game, I told it to him after the game.”
Oakland came into the game shooting just 25 percent from three-point range, but Izzo was wary of that number, not believing it reflected how well these Grizzlies could shot the basketball.
“We know who their shooters were, we said, ‘They’re a better shooting team’. And we felt, with Joey and Max, we’re a lot better shooting team than our numbers,” Izzo said. “First half, they shot better than us. I thought we gave them a few, and then I thought they hit a few tough ones. They were shooting 50 percent at halftime, and that’s not good for us defensively.”
The Golden Grizzlies shot 10-of-27 (37 percent) from deep on Tuesday, and shot just under 44 percent overall for the game. Oakland point guard Jalen Moore had 25 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds, while forward Jamal Cain had 20 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists.
“Every time there’s a left-handed point guard here, they seem to kick our butt, and Moore did a great job,” Izzo said. “We put a lot into Cain. He got 20 points, but I thought he had to work for every one of them and I was pleased. I thought [Joey] Houser did a hell of a job on him.”
Izzo called this Oakland team Kampe’s best defensive team “in a long time”, noting that while the Spartans got a lot of open looks, the Grizzlies did a good job on their closeouts.
Max Christie scored 17 points, tied with Marcus Bingham Jr. for the team lead. Christie shot 6-of-8 from the floor, and 4-of-6 from three-point range. It was just the type of showing the freshman needed, after struggling with his shooting percentages through the early portion of this season.
“Max is such a good player, and nobody’s seen the real Max Christie yet,” Izzo said. “He still had eight or nine shots – we’ve got to get him more shots, he’s got to get more shots. But, him hitting that first one – he had a great week of practice. I don’t think there’s anything he’s changed or doing different. It’s just a matter of getting adjusted and confidence. Shot really well here, and sometimes pro arenas aren’t the easiest to shoot in. That will be a big step up in the right direction for him.”
In addition to his 17 points, Bingham Jr. had 12 rebounds, 4 blocks and a steal. Point guard Tyson Walker also had a double-double, with 10 points and 10 assists to go along with 3 steals. Forward Gabe Brown scored 14 points with 4 rebounds and 3 assists, but shot just 5-of-14 from the floor, including 2-of-9 from deep.
Michigan State got 27 points from its bench as well, led by Malik Hall’s 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. AJ Hoggard has a nice game as well, with 7 points and 7 assists.
The Spartans – ranked No. 11 in the nation – improve to 10-2 overall, and are off to a 2-0 start in Big Ten play. Izzo said the team will be off until the day after Christmas, when they will start preparing for a home matchup with High Point University.
“I still think we have a tremendous upside. We can get better,” Izzo said. “I think we have a lot of things to get better at, a little more consistent at some things and it’s going to be fun. We’re off until the day after Christmas, and then we’ll have two-a-days. No NCAA violations, no rules, we can just have fun and practice and really get better.”