Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State's 98-93 overtime loss to Kansas State in the NCAA's Sweet 16
1. MSU, it turns out, was good enough to reach a Final Four. And close enough to feel heartbroken.
NEW YORK – If Michigan State’s win over Marquette felt like a regional final, that 45-minute bout against Kansas State in the Sweet 16 Thursday night felt like something that belonged in a Final Four. Given the game that unfolded, the performances on display, that might have been for a trip to the Final Four. It’s hard to imagine a better team on the other side of the East Regional draw than those two.
The Spartans were good enough to win. Close enough to feel heartbroken. But they were not the better team. Kansas State was the best team MSU had faced all season, with the best player it had seen all season in Markquis Nowell, whose dazzling performance — the latter stages on what appeared to be a sprained ankle — was just enough to carry the Wildcats to a 98-93 win in overtime.
MSU will wish it had the final possession to do over again. Trailing by three, it never got off a shot, with Nowell coming away with the loose ball and scoring his final bucket at the buzzer.
This was an incredible college basketball game. The Spartans, like against Marquette last Sunday, took their game to another level. The game required it. Third-seeded Kansas State met them there. Might have already been there.
If MSU had won this game, A.J. Hoggard’s performance would have gone down in Spartan lore. Kansas State couldn’t stop him downhill late — to the point it looked like he was going to be too much for the Wildcats. He finished with 25 points and six assists.
If MSU had won, Jaden Akins’ defense down the stretch against Nowell — including two blocks at a critical juncture — would have been remembered.
Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said after his team beat Kentucky in the last round that they had “more dudes." No doubt they had them. MSU showed it had its share of dudes, too.
“It was a like a ‘Rocky’ fight,” Nowell said Thursday night.
Kansas State delivered the last punch. And so MSU’s run ends. What adds to the pain for the Spartans is, it’s clear now they were good enough to keep going a while longer.
MORE:Couch: Michigan State's future bright, but this Sweet 16 loss will sting for awhile
2. Akins wound up being the answer defensively on Nowell
I think if MSU had to do this game over, it would have ridden with Jaden Akins guarding Markquis Nowell as much as Akins could handle it. Akins took over that role for good when Nowell returned from his second-half ankle injury, and while Nowell might have been slightly hobbled (though he was still a handful), Akins’ combination of quickness, length and ability to recover from behind gave Nowell problems.
Akins twice blocked Kansas State’s star guard late in the game, the first with MSU trailing 77-73. Akins keeping his body in front of Nowell as he tried to get to the basket, eventually rebuffing his shot. Shortly thereafter, with MSU trailing 80-75, Akins recovered to swat Nowell’s shot. That led to a 3-pointer by Akins on the other end. An important sequence in a game that wound up in overtime.
Nowell is a difficult cover, as tough as they come in college basketball. Akins wound up being MSU’s best defensive option against him and the only MSU player that seemed to bother him.
3. That’s a heckuva finale from Joey Hauser, albeit in heartbreak
Joey Hauser wishes he'd taken that shot on MSU's last possession. He said as much afterward. "I'm going to live with it," he said. I’m sure he also wishes he had one free throw back, the front end of a bonus situation getting late in the second half. Or one of a couple missed 3s after that. But Hauser’s final game at MSU was indicative of a memorable senior season. Few players have changed how they’ll be remembered late in their careers as much as Hauser. He joins a pantheon with the likes of Travis Trice and Kenny Goins — others who became beloved.
Hauser on Thursday night was MSU’s best offense as it settled into the game and found itself. He looked calm on this stage, scoring 18 points, hitting 5 of 11 shots, 4 of 9 3s, grabbed six rebounds and came up with a steal in 38 minutes. This is who Hauser was all season — finishing as MSU’s second leading scorer, at 14.4 points per game, just behind Tyson Walker.
While Walker and Malik Hall might return, Hauser has said this is it for him. Unlike the others, he’d have to apply for a medical waiver to come back. Beginning with last season’s NCAA tournament performance against Davidson, it’s been a heckuva calendar year for Hauser.
Bonus: Freshman thoughts – the final edition
This is about all you could ask out of MSU’s three freshmen — at this late point in the season, in the biggest game they’ve ever played, to be ready to contribute like they did. All three played within themselves. Each looked like they belonged on that stage.
Carson Cooper continues to be one of the great late finds in recruiting you’ll see. He gave MSU 12 good minutes Friday, again as the primary second option at center and, for a while, alongside Mady Sissoko as part of a lineup that played four productive minutes in the first half, outscoring Kansas State 7-5 during that stretch. Shortly after Cooper checked in for the first time, he snared an offensive rebound over the top of a Kansas State player. He later stood tall, taking an elbow to the face as he tried to defend the basket. He was called for the foul, an iffy call, but it was a gutsy defensive play.
He found foul trouble in the second half, but hauled in another offense rebound, over two K-State players, giving the Spartans an extra shot in a tie game heading down the stretch. Once Cooper adds strength, he’s going to be bear on the glass.
Jaxon Kohler played just one stretch, 3:36 in the first half as the first big man off the bench. It’s become his role in the tournament — the initial sub at center, before giving way to the matchups that favor Cooper. This will be a big offseason for Kohler to become more sound defensively and a more consistent threat on offense, boosting his value. Because the internal competition is only going to stiffen.
Kohler on Thursday looked engaged, played the scouting report well, boxed out and drew a foul on one play. He missed his only shot attempt, a nifty move that had everything but the finish. If he starts to finish consistently, he’ll be tougher to take off the floor.
Tre Holloman’s greatest strength right now might be his heart rate — he doesn’t get frazzled or sped up, not even against ball pressure, playing point guard in this setting. His best play Thursday came during his stretch in the first half, when, late in the shot clock, he drove and instead of shooting a panicked shot, whipped a pass to the left side to Jaden Akins for a 3-pointer, which tied the game 17-17. Holloman, like Cooper, was part of that four-minute lineup that played well in the middle of the first half, with Holloman running the show. This is a big summer for him, too. But he’s already established a high floor, as a point guard who can keep you afloat. That’s a good place to start.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU basketball falls in OT to Kansas State in Sweet 16: 3 quick takes