Xavier Booker’s first start for MSU basketball ruined: 3 quick takes

Xavier Booker’s first start for MSU basketball ruined: 3 quick takes


1. What looked like Christmas for MSU fans — Xavier Booker’s first start — somehow turned into a baffling and costly defeat

EAST LANSING – For most of the season, I’ve understood — and largely agreed with — Tom Izzo and Co. slow-playing the use of Xavier Booker. He wasn’t ready. That was clear as day well into January. Beyond obvious in December.

But things had changed. Booker looked more comfortable in recent weeks and, on Feb. 25, MSU’s coaches thought he was ready.

For MSU fans, Sunday was Christmas — either 10 months early or two months late, depending on your perspective. Or perhaps right on time.

Xavier Booker’s first career start Sunday was a gift beyond the expectations of fans who were just hoping the Spartans’ freshman big man would start to see playing time in both halves. Booker starting the game at center certainly ignited Breslin Center. His presence from the jump and for extended minutes also helped the Spartans to a 10-point lead five minutes into the second half.

Then, like a toy that was taken away by your parents for reasons beyond comprehension, Booker didn’t see the court over the game’s final 15 minutes after playing 17 of the first 25. And, to some correlation, MSU lost 60-57 on a last-second 3-pointer by Ohio State’s Dale Bonner over Tyson Walker that ruined the day and put the Spartans’ NCAA tournament prospects in a more precarious position than they ever should have been.

MSU didn’t lose this game only because Mady Sissoko was the choice at center down the stretch. Sissoko played as well as he has in a while — though couldn’t hang on to an offensive rebound late that might have made a difference. The Spartans lost this game because they scored seven points over the final 10-plus minutes and, at that pace, they were playing with fire. They lost this game because Walker and Jaden Akins largely couldn’t buy a bucket. 

They lost this game because their offense died, while a freshman who showed he can provide some juice on offense sat the bench. They lost because Ohio State was able to get deeper touches in the post, as their interim coach said, as MSU’s long-armed freshman sat.

A brutal loss. One that almost guarantees the Spartans will be an 8 seed or worse in the NCAA tournament, if they get there. They’ve got some winning still to do to make it.

A game that looked like a potential jolt to MSU’s season — like new hope — instead was anything but.

2. Freshman thoughts — the Xavier Booker’s first start edition

Questions about whether this should have happened earlier are fair, though anyone who saw Booker play in December knows he wasn’t the player then that he is today. Sunday, he looked ready to be an impact player. His occasional gaffes — going for the block instead of boxing out, for example — were made up for by what he provided. 

For one, his arms are everywhere. He blocked three shots and changed others and knocked a pass away, too. He caught a ball Jaden Akins lost on the drive, using his long arms to reach and grab it and quickly lay it in. It’s a play MSU’s other big man can’t make. They don’t have that combination of length and hands and quickness.

Booker played two long first-half stints — the first planned (though added to by the lack of a dead-ball break), the second due to foul trouble for Malik Hall and perhaps Carson Cooper. MSU didn’t go back to him in the latter parts of the second half, a sign the coaches still trust Mady Sissoko more. That’s the final frontier for Booker to overcome, I guess.

In all, Booker played 17 minutes, scored seven points on 3-for-6 shooting, including a 3-pointer, and pulled down three rebounds, to go along with the blocks. 

Another attribute of Booker: His versatility. He started at center, but when Hall picked up his second foul, he slid over to power forward, as Sissoko checked in. 

There were signs this week that this might be coming — when Izzo said he just had to find Xavier Booker the right matchup (Ohio State’s Felix Okpara is a good one) and more so when Booker spent extended time in practice playing with the starters. 

The question now is whether Booker stays in the starting lineup and plays these sort of minutes in MSU’s next game, this coming Saturday at Mackey Arena against Zach Edey and Purdue. While that might seem like a horrible matchup, it’s not a good one for any of MSU’s big men. Booker at least provides some length and quickness on the second bounce and, on the offensive end of the court, forces defenders to pick him up at the 3-point line. That’s not something I imagine Purdue wants to do with Edey.

3. Booker starting means new rotations and different roles 

It’s a one-game sample size, so it’s hard to know what Booker starting means for MSU’s other big men and rotation role players. But there’s definitely a trickle down effect to Booker playing an expanded role.

Interestingly, Sissoko, who lost his starting role, was the least impacted. He played a ton and played as well as he has in weeks — there’s a correlation there. Sissoko scored four points and grabbed six rebounds in 16 minutes. He looked more at ease, too.

Carson Cooper, though, played just seven minutes. It might have been a few more if not for first-half foul trouble, but, in this game at least, his role was diminished. Coen Carr played just seven minutes, with Booker getting what were likely a couple of his minutes at power forward. 

Among the challenges of introducing a new starter this late is how it changes rotations and roles and you could see that. And there were some clunky lineups that didn’t help. But that’s not why MSU lost. The Spartans worked through a lot of that had a 12-point lead well into the second half. They stopped scoring didn’t go back to the one big man who spaces the floor.

Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.



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