EAST LANSING — Version 1.0 of Michigan State basketball’s slimmed down roster showed plenty of promise.
At times strong rebounding. At times precision outside shooting. Mixing and matching lineups. A return of Jaden Akins. Contributions from freshmen.
All of which led to a 73-55 season-opening win over Northern Arizona on Monday night at Breslin Center.
Senior forward Joey Hauser led the Spartans with 18 points and 10 rebounds after getting just two double-doubles last season. Until late garbage time, MSU coach Tom Izzo went 10 deep, with each of those players scoring and his bench outscoring the Lumberjacks, 31-5. MSU also had a 36-14 edge in paint scoring.
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AJ Hoggard had nine points and eight assists despite battling foul trouble. Nine of the regular rotation players had between four and six points. The Spartans outrebounded NAU, 46-35, with freshman center Jaxon Kohler grabbing nine with his six points in his MSU debut. Malik Hall had seven rebounds with five points, and junior center Mady Sissoko adding six boards.
“I think our bench is a very underrated bench,” said sophomore Pierre Brooks, who scored a career-high 14 points in reserve and hit four 3-pointers along with Hauser. “I think we have one of the best benches in the country. And I feel that when we get guys like me, we get guys like Jaden coing off the bench, or it can be anybody, Jaxon, we can we can provide scoring off the bench. We can provide good defense off the bench. I think our bench is is one of those like to look out for, for sure.”
The Spartans shot 44.6% and went 9-for-27 from 3-point range while holding the Lumberjacks to 31.7% overall and 8 of 30 from deep.
“I think part of the good rebounding was the pretty good defense,” Izzo said. “That leads to good rebound or at least good rebound opportunities.”
Jalen Cone led NAU with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Liam Lloyd scored 11.
Things get much more difficult from here. The Spartans head to San Diego on Wednesday, where they will face No. 2 Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Tipoff is 6:30 pm ET on Friday (ESPN).
The Spartans came out looking much more aggressive than in their 73-56 exhibition win over Division II Grand Valley State. Particularly on the boards, with MSU jumping all over the Lumberjacks early for a 14-5 edge through the first 8:26. That and a smothering defensive effort led to a 21-5 lead as Northern Arizona missed 13 straight shots at one point and its first 11 3-point attempts.
“That was good. Especially the first five minutes, we were really moving the ball around well,” Hauser said. “Malik had a couple open shots early, Tyson had a couple of open ones, I got my first couple of shots there in the first six minutes or whatever. … It kind of got stagnant after that.”
The Lumberjacks chipped away at the lead as they hit their first 3-pointers to spark an 8-0 run that cut it back to single digits. But Akins and Hauser hit jumpers from the left wing as part of a 10-4 closing run to carry a 34-20 lead into halftime.
Hauser looked for his shot often and crashed the glass for 10 points and five rebounds, while Sissoko attacked the boards for six rebounds. The Spartans were 5-for-12 from 3-point range, with Hauser and Brooks each hitting two.
MSU maintained its double-digit lead for the entire second half, extending it to as many as 21.
Izzo said before the game that Akins would play 10 to 15 minutes. The sophomore guard nearly hit that by halftime.
Despite recently returning from his September foot surgery, Akins played 8:05 in the opening half and had six points. That in part was due to foul trouble for Hoggard, who had four assists early before sitting the final 11:34 of the half.
Akins looked up to speed in transition and was able to create his shot. Defensively, he looked a slight bit slow laterally but looked quick off the floor for a blocked shot.
Then came the second half, and Izzo left the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder for a nearly 6-minute stint at the end of which Akins looked tired. But Izzo went back to him again for another stretch after a rest, and Akins continued to battle for rebounds and loose balls — including hanging in the air trying for a blocked shot but getting called for a foul, snagging the net as he came down to avoid potentially stepping on the NAU player below.
Akins played 16 minutes and finished with six points on 3 of 10 shooting with a rebound and a block.
“It’s still gonna take a couple of weeks,” Izzo said. “You don’t take off eight weeks and come back, and that’s why I wanted to get him a few more minutes, because with some big games coming up, it’s not like we get any rest or any time to work. … So that was an important 16 minutes. And the best part was the practices, that were an hour and a half and he did most of them, he’s had absolutely no problem. So I’m really proud of him and happy for him.”
Contact Chris Solari:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.
Next up: Bulldogs
Matchup: Michigan State (1-0) vs. Gonzaga (0-0), Armed Forces Classic.
Tipoff: 6:30 pm Monday; USS Abraham Lincoln, San Diego.
TV/radio: ESPN; WJR-AM (760).