LINCOLN, Neb. — Tom Izzo has a big problem: Michigan State basketball’s lack of production from big men.
The emptiness from Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper in the post, both offensively and defensively, became so frustrating for Izzo after Sunday night’s 77-70 loss at Nebraska in Pinnacle Bank Arena that he delivered a stinging quip about other potential options.
“The way I feel right now?” Izzo started. “Nick and Steven are options.”
That would be Nick Sanders, son of Barry, and Steven Izzo, son of MSU’s Hall of Fame coach. One is 5 feet 10, the other 5-8. Both are walk-ons.
Izzo’s sarcasm does beg a logical follow-up question: What about that skinny 6-11 freshman, the five-star McDonald’s All-American, the guy who hasn’t played in three of the past four games?
More on Xavier Booker shortly. Because it was not his fault that neither Sissoko nor Cooper could maintain defensive assignments, block out for rebounds or sometimes even catch a pass thrown their way.
The two centers struggled mightily against 6-10 Nebraska center Rienk Mast. The Bradley transfer finished with eight points on 4-for-9 shooting. He grabbed 14 rebounds, including three on the offensive glass, and two led to Juwan Gary second-chance layups.
Mast also dished out six assists, five in the second half, as Sissoko and Cooper got out of position with their help defense on backdoor cuts. Gary, a 6-6 swingman who started in place of the injured Josiah Allick, finished with 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including two of Nebraska’s eight 3-pointers.
It also did not help the Spartans that Sissoko, 6-9, did not take a shot in 13 scoreless minutes and grabbed just three rebounds. Cooper had a dunk for his only points and missed his other shot. The 6-11 sophomore did not grab a rebound in his 12 minutes. Neither got to the free-throw line.
That forced Izzo to go small and play 6-8 Malik Hall at center, and the senior forward produced a season-high 22 points with seven rebounds and two blocks. Freshman Coen Carr, at 6-5, logged 21 minutes and played a lot more down low, finishing with four points, three rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot he didn’t get credited with because it initially was ruled a goaltend.
“I thought Malik had maybe his best game overall, and I had to move him all over because the lack of production I got out of my two centers,” Izzo said. “Just disappointed. I thought we were playing well enough to win and boy they made some shots. … We did a hell of a job in those backdoors. And then our centers got lazy ball pressure, and they got three of them start to the second half.”
The lack of scoring in the paint allowed the Cornhuskers to “load up” defensively on the perimeter to shut down Tyson Walker, who scored just two first-half points and went 2-for-11 before hitting five straight shots late to rally MSU.
Walker said getting more offense down low would help the Spartans’ guards.
“Their guards just can’t stick to us as much,” said Walker, who missed his final two shots and finished with 17 points on 7-for-18 shooting. “It helps having a presence inside. It changes the way they gotta guard.”
On the season, Sissoko averages 4.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 17.3 minutes. Cooper is posting 3.2 points and 5.3 boards in 18.4 minutes. The Spartans remain without 6-9 sophomore Jaxon Kohler, who is still recovering from foot surgery in October.
“I was very disappointed in our play (in the post). Very disappointed,” Izzo said. “And you’re right, not a lot options.”
Yet with their continued problems on the block, the most glaring absence remains Booker, who remain parked on MSU’s bench all night after not playing in losses to Arizona on Nov. 23 and Wisconsin on Tuesday.
Booker averages just 2.8 points and only 1.8 rebounds in 10.7 minutes over six games off the bench. The bulk of his 63 minutes this season have come against low-major opponents Southern Indiana (four points, two rebounds in 17 minutes), Alcorn State (five points, five rebounds in 19 minutes) and Georgia Southern (three points, two rebounds in 12 minutes).
Izzo was asked Sunday: “Do you feel that (Booker) could be at any point a help to this rotation, or what does he need to do to be a help?”
“Well, we put him on the scout team, and he really made some progress in the last two weeks, like every other great player I’ve had,” Izzo said. “I almost put him in, it’s just that center was so physical. When they went with Gary, even though (Allick) got hurt, we were kind of concerned because Gary’s in our minds a better offensive player. He goes 8-for-11, and we didn’t think Book cover him.
“But Book will get his chance this week, because there’s gonna be some rotating. But he’s not the savior.”
A significant reason for his current usage is 220-pound Booker’s lack of weight and strength to bang with the big bodies of the Big Ten and upper echelon of college basketball on the blocks. Another component remains his learning curve, particularly on defense, and the need to discover the type of energy and effort Izzo demands.
Then again, Izzo also not getting much right now from either Sissoko or Cooper.
“Listen, people gotta chill out on Book, because he’s a great kid, he’s doing everything he can do,” Izzo said. “He’s just – it’s gonna take him some time, just like a lot of other people. He’s learning how to play harder. I’ve been really pleased with his practices, and I told you when I wasn’t. And you’re looking for it, because the guys that should be doing it are not doing it. And I’m looking for the same thing.
“But this week, Book will get more of a chance, and we’re gonna start shuffling a little bit.”
MSU (4-5, 0-2 Big Ten) is off until Saturday, with another daunting task ahead against No. 6 Baylor. Tipoff is 2 p.m. at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit (Fox). Booker could be needed to help try and offset 6-9 senior Jalen Bridges, 7-foot freshman Yves Missi and 6-10 sophomore Josh Ojianwuna among the Bears’ top producers.
Asked Thursday about Booker, Hall said he has made a point to remind the quiet freshman understands his importance even with his limited role at the moment.
“Book is a special case,” Hall said. “To be honest, really, it’s just about keeping a guy engaged, keeping them locked in to the team. Sometimes, what you want isn’t always gonna be what’s best for the team. So it’s making sure that he understands you just have to get better every day. He has been, and it’s something I’ve talked to him about over the last couple of days – just keep getting better. As you get better, our team is gonna get better, too.”
Izzo said he believes that when Kohler returns sometime later this month, it will help cure some of the issues. But there also remains the need for Kohler to regain stamina, the uncertainty of how many minutes he can log after having foot surgery and how it all affects the footwork that allowed him to average 3.0 points and 2.9 rebounds over 10.8 minutes as a freshman last season.
“The ball’s gotta go in” the post, Izzo said. “I think some of that is gonna be alleviated at least by Christmas or right after Christmas. It’s gonna be a little easier to throw it in and have some offense.”
“I’m just disappointed that when guys get opportunities, they better jump on them. If not, they disappear,” Izzo added. “And tonight, I just thought our bigs did not play very well. So they gotta play better, I gotta coach better. It goes back to that.”
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