The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance, and postseason potential.
Last March was a special one in East Lansing. For the first time since 2019 and only the second time since 2015, Michigan State got back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The win over Marquette advancing the Spartans to the Sweet 16 snapped what had been a frustrating run, with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament arguably being the toughest blow to the program over that span.
But all eyes will now turn to this season, where Michigan State returns much of last year’s squad, including key players like AJ Hoggard and Jaden Akins. The Spartans also add one of the nation’s better recruiting classes, potentially giving Tom Izzo and his staff enough talent to smooth over any holes in the rotation.
There’s little debating Michigan State’s roster looks impressive, at least on paper. The Spartans have a great combination of depth, experience, and raw talent and have a head coach with a proven track record. The questions are simply about how the squad will mesh and whether these pieces that look as good on the court as they do on paper.
So, how good can the Spartans be this season? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 21-13 (11-8)
- KenPom Team Rating: #26
- NET Rating: #32
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (S16)
Last season was a productive one in East Lansing. While the team never played at an elite level, it complied a solid resume, had a handful of marquee victories, and scored two wins when they mattered most, advancing to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2019 before narrowly falling short against a red hot Kansas State squad.
Perhaps what’s particularly bizarre about Michigan State’s performance was the bell curve of success. The Spartans started well, scoring victories over teams like Kentucky and Villanova early and getting to 12-4 overall at one point. However, the team flopped for many of the following weeks, drifting to underwhelming 14-9 and 17-11 marks as the season continued, before rebounding with the NCAA Tournament run. It was a quintessential Izzo run, where the team was playing its best at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, this felt a lot more like a “surprise” run to the Sweet 16 than anything suggestive of Michigan State’s overall performance. Again, the Spartans were a good team, but nowhere close to elite. Even the team’s final KenPom ranking (26th) and overall record (21-13) left a lot to be desired. Michigan State simply let too many winnable games and marquee opportunities slip away to be on that next tier. In many ways, the Tournament wins over USC and Marquette covered up for what was otherwise a lackluster performance, though Michigan State is certainly not the first or the last team to do that.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Kentucky, Oregon, and Villanova, the Big Ten wins over Indiana, arch-rival Michigan, and Wisconsin, and the NCAA Tournament wins over USC and Marquette. Low points included the non-conference loss to Notre Dame, the regular season losses to Michigan and Iowa, and the postseason losses to Ohio State and Kansas State.
Individual statistical leaders were Joey Hauser, AJ Hoggard, Mady Sissoko, and Tyson Walker. Hauser led the team in minutes, rebounds, and total win shares. Hoggard led the team in assists. Sissoko led the team in blocks. Walker led the team in points and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Michigan State got off extremely light in attrition this offseason. Despite having a pretty experienced roster and making the Sweet 16, the Spartans return just about everybody from last season. The only exceptions were Pierre Brooks, Joey Hauser, and Jason Whitens. That’s remarkably few departures for an era ruled by the transfer portal.
The most significant loss is clearly Hauser. He led the team in a variety of key statistical categories, including minutes and total win shares. While it often didn’t feel like he was Michigan State’s best player, he was the most consistent. He brought it every night and was a reliable forward at the four spot. He also improved significantly from deep last season, shooting an impressive 46.1 percent from three-point range on 167 attempts.
There isn’t much to write about regarding the other two departures. Brooks certainly played more, but finished with a pedestrian 14.3 minutes per game. He was a perennial backup and saw his minutes evaporate last season. In fact, Brooks didn’t even play in any of Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament games. Whitens played even less, finishing with 79 total minutes for the season. Neither will change Michigan State’s projections much.
All told, it’s hard to complain about much here if you’re a Spartan fan. Losing Hauser is certainly disappointing, but only losing one starter from a Sweet 16 squad is pretty rare and the Spartans are set to benefit from it significantly this year.
3. New Additions
The Spartans will be adding a loaded set of new additions in a recruiting class ranked fifth nationally by 247Sports. The prospects are Xavier Booker, Coen Carr, Jeremy Fears, and Gehrig Normand. Fears is listed as a point guard, Carr and Normand are listed as small forwards, and Booker is listed as a center. Booker is rated as a five-star prospect while the other three are all listed as four-stars.
While Booker is the highest rated prospect in the class (11th nationally), Carr and Fears have also been getting considerable offseason hype. Booker and Carr are viewed as athletic freaks who could contribute early and Fears is viewed as a great prospect to facilitate the offseason behind Michigan State’s returning backcourt. Normand projects as more of a long-term project, though he’s certainly good enough to get into the rotation early.
The biggest thing to stress about this class is athleticism. Carr looks like one of Michigan State’s more physically gifted additions in years. There’s little doubt he will be delivering some thunderous dunks this season. The question is if and/or how quickly Izzo can convert that athleticism into skill. For example, while Carr figures to be a beast in transition and on defense, his offensive game remains unpolished. If the Spartans are going to keep their perimeter-oriented offense going, Carr will need to improve there.
Overall, this is an incredible group of newcomers. At least two or three of these players will be early impact recruits and likely stars down the line. Whether Michigan State can reach its eventual goals will depend on how quickly this group gels with the rest of the roster.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s a lot to like about the Spartans heading into this season. The roster is relatively proven, Michigan State has star level talent, and adds a group of intriguing newcomers. Add in a proven coaching staff and it’s easy to see why so many believe this could be a special season in East Lansing.
The obvious place to start with this roster are the returners. Michigan State doesn’t just return some key players from last season. The Spartans are returning virtually every contributor save one (Hauser) from last year’s Sweet 16 run. That includes Hoggard and Walker, who both received at least some type of All-Big Ten designation last March. Starting with a returning core like that is rare, particularly in today’s world of college basketball.
But things don’t stop there, either. Michigan State also adds a dynamic 2023 recruiting class with multiple instant impact prospects. Carr is going to get time on the wing with Jaden Akins and Malik Hall and Booker and Fears should fill out the depth chart as well. It figures to be a massive upgrade for the team’s bench and potentially even more, if one of the newcomers proves good enough to supplant someone as a starter.
It’s also important to emphasize the potential for some of the players on this roster. Michigan State hasn’t had a bonafide star on its roster since Cassius Winston left after the COVID-19 shortened season. And while that isn’t the only reason, it’s a major part of why Michigan State has been good but not great since then. Being an elite team requires having elite players and the Spartans need some. The good news is that likely changes this year with several returners potentially set for breakouts and high-end prospects arriving.
5. Points of Concern
Fortunately for Spartan fans, there aren’t many holes on this roster. Even if Michigan State underachieves on its lofty preseason expectations, this should still be a good team that lands in the NCAA Tournament. There are simply too many proven players to expect anything different. Simply put, this is a high floor team.
Still, there are some things for fans to wonder about. To start, it’s important to keep the returning pieces in perspective. While Michigan State finished well with a solid NCAA Tournament run, the Spartans were not a great team last season. The team finished 26th on KenPom and spent much of the year around the 40s. Again, the conclusion was nice, but a win or two in March generally isn’t extremely predictive for an upcoming season, especially when compared against an entire season’s worth of data.
The loss of Hauser is also notable. He was the team’s most consistent contributor and was a massive part of Michigan State’s improved perimeter game. Hall should be a capable replacement, but there’s a reason why Hauser was in front of him. There’s a real chance of a spillover to other players as well. For example, is Walker going to have as much room to work and get as many assists if Hauser isn’t delivering from deep? It seems unlikely.
Michigan State is also set to rely on a variety of freshmen for key roles. It’s likely at least two or three see serious time and it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least two get serious consideration for starting roles. Naturally, anytime you’re relying on freshmen to do anything, it inherently has some risk.
6. Top Player
The Spartans have a handful of contenders for this designation, which says a lot about the team’s potential this season. The most likely options are AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker. They were impressive last season and figure to lead the Big Ten’s best backcourt this time around. The two boast different strengths, but are both reliable options.
Jaden Akins is another potential option, though he’s certainly a step behind Hoggard and Walker. He probably doesn’t get the usage to be Michigan State’s top player, though he could improve there and lessen the deficit. The newcomers are also darkhorses in this category. All four are top 125 prospects that should make early impacts. However, they’ll likely be in more complimentary roles than anything else.
7. 2023-’24 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/25 - Hillsdale College (Exh.)
- 10/29 - Tennessee (Exh.)
- 11/6 - James Madison
- 11/9 - Southern Indiana
- 11/14 - Duke (Chicago, IL)
- 11/17 - Butler
- 11/19 - Alcorn State
- 11/23 - Arizona (Thousand Palms, CA)
- 11/28 - Georgia Southern
- 12/5 - Wisconsin
- 12/10 - at Nebraska
- 12/16 - Baylor (Detroit, MI)
- 12/18 - Oakland
- 12/21 - Stony Brook
- 12/30 - Indiana State
- 1/4 - Penn State
- 1/7 - at Northwestern
- 1/11 - at Illinois
- 1/14 - Rutgers
- 1/18 - Minnesota
- 1/21 - at Maryland
- 1/26 - at Wisconsin
- 1/30 - Michigan
- 2/3 - Maryland
- 2/6 - at Minnesota
- 2/10 - Illinois
- 2/14 - at Penn State
- 2/17 - at Michigan
- 2/20 - Iowa
- 2/25 - Ohio State
- 3/2 - at Purdue
- 3/6 - Northwestern
- 3/10 - at Indiana
As usual, Michigan State faces a brutal slate, highlighted by a variety of marquee opponents and a variety of difficult games away from home. For perspective, Michigan State is presently slated to face four teams in KenPom’s preseason top 10 and has six other games against top 25 opponents in the same rankings. Even if the Spartans live up to their considerable preseason hype, that’s a gauntlet.
Non-conference play will ride on a handful of marquee opponents. Michigan State begins that effort with Duke in the Champions Classic, but is also slated to face Arizona on Thanksgiving and Baylor in Detroit just before Christmas. All three are in the top 10 in KenPom’s preseason rankings and should pose major challenges to the Spartans. The team also gets a tricky game against Butler in mid-November, which should be a fun one.
Conference play has its own challenges. Fortunately, Michigan State evaded double-plays against Purdue and Maryland, which should make things a tad easier. However, the team still gets Illinois and Wisconsin in double-plays and a challenging trip to Bloomington. This could be the most interesting portion of the slate, with KenPom odds noted alongside each game:
- 1/21 - at Maryland (45%)
- 1/26 - at Wisconsin (42%)
- 1/30 - Michigan (77%)
- 2/3 - Maryland (68%)
- 2/6 - at Minnesota (79%)
That’s two tricky road games, two crucial home games, and a potential letdown spot afterward with Minnesota on the road on a Tuesday night. If the Spartans are going to push Purdue for the Big Ten title, it feels like they need to go 4-1 or better in these five.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: AJ Hoggard (Jr.) - 95%
- SG: Tyson Walker (Sr.) - 95%
- SF: Jaden Akins (So.) - 90%
- PF: Malik Hall (Sr.) - 85%
- C: Mady Sissoko (Jr.) - 65%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
With only one departing starter, Michigan State enters this fall with one of the most predictable lineups in the Big Ten. Every starter from last season seems an easy pick to keep their spots, save one in the frontcourt. And with an experienced forward like Malik Hall returning, picking the last spot is pretty easy as well.
In the backcourt, it’s obvious who will start if healthy. Hoggard and Walker composed one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts last season and should again with even more experience playing alongside each other. Tre Holloman and freshman Jeremy Fears figure to back up those two, though there’s some flexibility among the starters as well.
The wing group is arguably the most open. Akins and Hall are pretty safe bets to start, but neither dominated the same way Hoggard and Walker did in the backcourt and Hall has experienced hiccups with extended minutes. As such, it’s likely Izzo looks to the reserves to get more minutes as the season continues. This is where Carr and Normand can pick things up. As noted above, Carr is physically ready to play. The question is whether he’s perimeter game is good enough to play extended minutes on the wing.
Upfront, Mady Sissoko is a safe bet to start after a relatively productive season. However, the starting designation is likely to be in name only, as freshman Booker and returning young man Carson Cooper will get plenty of minutes as well. This should insulate Michigan State against foul trouble and allow for maximum development.
Overall, there’s not much drama to Michigan State’s projected lineup. This is a proven team with four returning starters. Fortunately, it still has a lot of upside with so many young reserves. If a few of them develop well, the sky’s the limit.
9. Realistic Team Goals
Michigan State wasn’t a great team last time around. In fact, the Spartans were closer to “solid” than “good” for much of the season. However, that all changed with a great closing run and trip to the Sweet 16. Most of that squad now returns with an elite recruiting class alongside them. By every typical measure, everything projects well.
The only real question is whether Michigan State can take the next step. Becoming a good team is one thing, but moving up to the elite level is another story. It’s arguably the most difficult step in sports and it’s what the Spartans are attempting this season. But that’s the standard. Michigan State fans should be hoping for a major run in the postseason and to compete for a Big Ten title.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Many will slate this as a “do or die” season for Michigan State. A year where the Spartans “have to” capitalize on the roster’s considerable depth and talent. And to a certain degree, those comments are reasonable. It’s rare to enter a season with the combination of pieces Michigan State will boast this fall.
However, slating this as a can’t miss squad or a group where the goal should be “Final Four or bust” is a little hyperbolic. The Spartans are coming off a good season, but one in which the team showed a variety of flaws. It wasn’t a perfect team by any stretch and will certainly face some bumps along the way this time around. The key will be meshing the young pieces in which the proven returners.
The goal here should be contending for the Big Ten title and a high seed in March, which the Spartans should be poised to do. The group still seems a solid step behind Purdue, but should otherwise be positioned to reach those goals.