Michigan State Basketball: AJ Hoggard play will determine NCAA tourney fate

Michigan State's A.J. Hoggard celebrates after a play against Michigan during the second half on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.220129 Msu Mich 222a
Michigan State's A.J. Hoggard celebrates after a play against Michigan during the second half on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.220129 Msu Mich 222a /

Michigan State basketball’s point guard playing at a high level down the stretch is the difference between a late March run and an early tourney exit.

AJ Hoggard is proving to be the most tantalizing player on the Michigan State roster this season. The sophomore out of Huntington (W.V.) Prep arrived on campus as part of the 2020 class with some fairly high expectations, but after looking like a freshman during his early campaign, chatter started about another rocky road ahead for the Spartans at the point guard position.

Since Cassius Winston graduated, the Spartans have found it difficult to secure consistent play from the point, last year deploying Rocket Watts, which left him completely out of position and later seeing him leave the program, and filtering in the likes of Hoggard and Foster Loyer which left much to be desired running the offense. It was a situational nightmare for Tom Izzo as he entered the 2021-22 season searching for answers.

That answer seemed to have come quickly with a commitment from Tyson Walker who chose the Spartans after entering the transfer portal from Northeastern. At times, Walker has looked like a superstar in the making and flashed brilliance on the court that has demonstrated the veteran savviness that the Spartans needed at the position. Then, on the flip side, he’s struggled in the bright lights with turnovers and decision making — the latter being Michigan States Achilles heel all season long. Walker has played well for the most part and remained entrenched in the starting role, but as the season has gone on there is one thing that has been evidently clear about the fate of this season for the Spartans.

Many will think that answer comes by way of taking care of the basketball and, in part, it does but the flip-side also has to do with who is handling the basketball for the Spartans down the stretch. You would think that answer is Walker who, as a junior, has the type of veteran voice, even in his first year, that Tom Izzo loves. However, it isn’t Walker, but instead Hoggard that will be one of the largest determining factors as to whether or not the Spartans make a deep NCAA tourney run.

In his sophomore year, Hoggard has proven many doubters wrong about his potential at the point guard position for the Spartans. In fact, he has looked like a completely different player this season. Once a newbie that was blinded by the bright lights of the Big Ten just a short season ago, Hoggard has bucked that to, instead, look like a seasoned vet and one primed to make big plays down the stretch.

In fact, while I had every understanding of how hard it is to come in and run a major college basketball team at the point guard position, even I have been quite pleasantly surprised by the complete 180 Hoggard has made.

Hoggard has handled the crunch time situations as the season has gone on, looking comfortable as either the orchestrator or playmaker based on the defense and more than anything simply having the ball in his hands. There has been a drastic change in the confidence that Hoggard has displayed. You don’t have to look far to see that not only is Hoggard’s confidence looked completely different, but the confidence of Izzo in putting Hoggard in high-pressure situations.

Early in the season, instead, it was Walker that handled those duties but as the games have become increasingly difficult and his play has destabilized a bit instead it has been Hoggard playing the meaningful moments. His play has warranted it.

When either of the point guards are “on”, the Spartans have not only proven, they can go toe to toe with anyone in the country. Allso when “off”, they have looked like what many expected them to be this year: average. The difference is that Hoggard seems to just see the entire floor and offense happen quicker than Walker.

To be fair to Walker, despite his junior status, he’s also seeing the biggest stage of his basketball career this year. Northeastern was not seeing the level of competition and intensity that one sees in the Big Ten. That competition and pressure will reach a boiling point as March rolls around, and Hoggard has delivered more consistency running the team in those scenarios late in the season this year.

Hoggard is built more like a “Michigan State point guard” and the extra size and weight have proven helpful when making key plays for the Spartans — but he retains the quickness and agility to carve up a defense quickly, too. That was no more evident in setting up Joey Hauser for the game-winning bucket against Minnesota and his 10 assists, one-turnover game against Michigan.

With the style of Tom Izzo’s transition offense, there is no single position on the court more important than a point guard who can make fast decisions and run the floor, while commanding the team and the offense. Hoggard is showing that what was demonstrated as a freshman last year is a distant memory of what could be during his second season in the green and white.

This team will go as far as Hoggard can take them. He’s proven he can get to the rim and score when the offense demands it or the opposing defense dictates it, but as touched on before with reference to his most recent play, he can dish the rock as good as anyone on the team. It’s still too early in his career to compare him to Spartan greats, but you see the development happening before your eyes that help you to believe that he could be well on the way.

Don’t get me wrong, the likes of Malik Hall, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, and Max Christie will all prove to be important keys as this team plays at the top of their game when they play as a true team and don’t have one single player try to take over, but the one directing the traffic and creating plays is what will make or break a storybook ending.

The turnovers are what have hurt the Spartans, and the difference between taking care of the basketball and clumsily turning it over to the other team also starts with the transition from defense to offense as part of the Spartan’s preference to run with the ball. Hoggard will need to be the one seeing the majority of the minutes for that to run at its best.

The Spartans have exceeded expectations this year, and in East Lansing, there is every reason to believe that this underdog team has the chance at a Final Four run, but AJ is the key to that happening. He’s proving that he is the player many thought we would be getting when he came to Michigan State and continues to grow each and every week. He’s got a moxie about him you can’t teach, and the confidence in showing that alpha dog status as the weeks go by in his second season is truly fun to watch.

Can Izzo hang another Final Four banner from the rosters this year, with this team? Absolutely. Can he muster enough from these Spartans to hoist the national title trophy at the end of the year? Yes. To do either of those things will mean depending on what has gotten them to this point and made them most successful this year: taking care of the basketball, running the floor and scoring fast, and playing great team basketball all around.

The best person to make that happen, and the most important player to bring those needs through to the finish line is none other than Hoggard. Time will tell what this team can accomplish this year, but their sophomore point guard will be the difference between a trip to the Big Easy and the Final Four in New Orleans and an early departure from the tournament and into the offseason.

Next. 3 takeaways from MSU's blowout of Michigan. dark