Smaller Michigan State basketball roster opens practice with several breakout candidates

EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo believes Michigan State basketball's limited number of bodies will be enough this winter.

But as practice opened for college basketball teams around the country Monday, the Spartans did so two players down from their 14-player roster.

Forward Malik Hall sported a walking boot to deal with a toe issue on his right foot and joined guard Jaden Akins in sitting out the first official team workout of the season at Breslin Center.

Hall is expected to be back in a week or two, and Izzo anticipates Akins will be healed from his Sept. 10 foot surgery by the time MSU tips off the regular season Nov. 7 at home against Northern Arizona.

Michigan State
Michigan State's Jaden Akins left, and Malik Hall, right, work with associate strength and conditioning coach Marshall Repp during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept.  

"Jaden Akins is out for a little bit here. I don't see that thing going into the season at all," Izzo said. "But does it hurt us that he's out? Of course it hurts us that he's out. ... (Hall) actually has a bad, stubbed toe, I guess. It's not a crack, it's like a chip. But he's only supposed to be out a week or week and a half. So that's not anything of a crisis, but he will not be practicing for a while. They said it's not as bad as turf toe, so I guess that's good news."

Hall and Akins are two of the Spartans' 10 recruited scholarship players, with four walk-ons joining them. Izzo did not fill three open scholarships with recruits, grad transfers or portal additions during the offseason after Max Christie declared for the NBA draft and both Marcus Bingham Jr. and Gabe Brown opted to turn pro rather than returning for their extra year of eligibility.

Izzo joked that former Villanova coach Jay Wright told him using a six-player rotation "was awesome for him."

"We won't do that, we'll play more than that," Izzo said, projecting an eight- or nine-man playing group as the season progresses.

"I like the group I got," Izzo said. "It's smaller, I don't like that. But we made a choice, and the choice was to stick with the people we got and try to develop them, try to keep the homegrown guys. Understanding that some of these guys are ready for breakout years."

Junior point guard A.J. Hoggard and sophomore swingman Pierre Brooks II were two Izzo put in that category, adding that Hall, seniors Joey Hauser and Tyson Walker all had impressive summers. The same goes for Akins, a sophomore guard who appeared primed to get a much bigger role shooting guard after Christie's departure before suffering the stress reaction in his left foot.

"We're not going to put him out there early and jeopardize his season. Whether they're the biggest games or not, we're not gonna do that," Izzo said of Akins, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound combo guard who averaged 3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.6 steals 14.8 minutes a game last season. "But I don't see that as an issue right now. And I think the good thing with Jaden, he's down there cranking it on that bike and the Versaclimber. His conditioning I think will be good ..., but only time is going to tell that. He's worked so hard in the offseason."

Akins is one of the players Izzo pointed to as a developing leader, though he admitted "leadership is a problem" so far. He said the Spartans could take a more by-committee approach this season with Akins, Hoggard, Hall, Hauser and Walker.

Michigan State
Michigan State's head coach Tom Izzo, right, jokes around with Jaden Akins during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept.  

"I've had good chemistry. I've had good moments of leadership," Izzo said. "But as they say, great leaders are doing something when nobody's watching. I'm still trying to find that."

Another area of concern for Izzo is at center. With Bingham's departure and the outbound transfer of Julius Marble II, the Spartans are left with minimally experienced junior Mady Sissoko as the lone veteran with freshmen Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper as the primary options in the middle, with Hauser having played there in spurts the past two seasons.

The 6-9, 240-pound Sissoko averaged just 4.5 minutes a game with 1.1 points, 1.0 rebounds and 0.4 blocks last season. He shot 63.2% from the field but just 42.9% at the free-throw line. The 6-9, 240-pound Kohler is a four-star recruit with a high upside offensively that Izzo likened to former stars Zach Randolph and Goran Suton. And Izzo said it looks like the Cooper - a 6-11, 230-pound late addition to the recruiting class with Kohler and guard Tre Holloman - won't take a developmental redshirt as was the initial plan.

"Nothing's off the table," Izzo said. "But I think we're going to need all of our bigs. We can still go small ball at times, but there are guys in our league that we have to play against. And sometimes just having bodies and fouls to give is going to be valuable. What has helped Carson is he's actually been better than we thought."

Izzo said he believes the race for a Big Ten title is fairly open to win this season, yet questions remain with a number of new additions and transfers across the league. What he values, though, he believes his team has.

"Having good enough players is one thing," he said. "Remember this, championships are still won with chemistry and some kind of character."

The Spartans' early schedule also is a gauntlet - Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic in San Diego, Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis, Villanova at home in the Gavitt Games, three high-level games at the Phil Knight Invitational and traveling to Notre Dame for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge just in the first month. Then there are two Big Ten games at home against Northwestern and at Penn State to open December followed by three more nonleague games before the teeth of Big Ten play begins in January.

Michigan State men
Michigan State men's basketball team participates in the first day of practice on Monday, Sept.  

"It's as good a nine-game stretch as this school, maybe anybody in the country, has ever played," Izzo said. "What a great opportunity for us to see where you're at. Did we bite off more than we can chew? Yes, we did. Am I upset about it? No, I'm not."

It's exhausting to think about more than a month before it begins, yet Izzo looks and says he's feeling reinvigorated between staff changes, landing a talented 2023 class that's ranked No. 2 in the nation by 247Sports and even more juice on the recruiting circuit for the next few years.

So the annual question about when 67-year-old Izzo might decide to retire appears moot for now. And maybe for the next few years.

"I'm definitely not putting any timeframe on it. I'm definitely not thinking anything in the near future," he said. "But I'm definitely, positively not going beyond being able to do my job. And that's taking red eyes to get out recruiting and do whatever I gotta do on a daily basis.

"And how do I feel now? I probably felt the best I've felt in the last five years, just because of all we've been through in a lot of different areas, COVID in particular lately. And we're moving forward now."

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball opens practice minus Malik Hall, Jaden Akins


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