3 quick takes on Michigan State’s 81-68 win over Toledo

1. The tone surrounding Joey Hauser noticeably changed Saturday

EAST LANSING – There was a noticeable change in the crowd’s reaction to Joey Hauser in Michigan State’s 81-68 win over Toledo on Saturday. As if those in attendance decided the best tactic is to embrace the Spartans’ struggling power forward, rather than pile on. I don’t know if the tone on social media took a similar turn. I’m afraid to look. But you could hear it live at Breslin — cheers when Hauser was introduced, encouragement from the student section when he missed a couple shots early and loud applause when he drained a 3 from the left wing, nearly from pro range, for a 21-12 lead with 8:38 remaining in the first half.

There is no question that Hauser is having a tough time with his shot and it’s in his head. It’s understandably frustrating for fans, who want to see the player Izzo touted when Hauser transferred from Marquette. But perhaps Izzo this week mentioning how much the negative social media reaction had bothered Hauser (and other now-former players) helped spur a change in tone. At least in the building. The difference between Saturday and Wednesday was noticeable in that regard.

Hauser made 1 of 5 shots Saturday, that aforementioned 3-pointer, along with two free throws, while pulling down six rebounds, blocking a shot, dishing a nice post-feed assist to Julius Marble and turning the ball over just once. MSU will be a better team if Hauser is confident and, ideally, shooting well. Malik Hall, who’s playing through a sore ankle, is likely to be MSU’s primary 4-man either way. No point in bullying Hauser. That doesn’t help MSU. Nor is it necessary.

Dec 4, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA;  Michigan State Spartans guard Jaden Akins (3) shoots in the first half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center.

Dec 4, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Jaden Akins (3) shoots in the first half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center.

2. Freshman thoughts — the Toledo edition

The most notable development for any of MSU’s three freshmen Saturday happened with Jaden Akins’ playing time. Akins played a season-high 24 minutes (12 in each half), six more than he did against Baylor or Eastern Michigan, his previous two season highs. This was Akins’ recent performances being rewarded. His role seems to be expanding from energy guy to energy guy AND defensive stopper.

Akins checked in with the first group off the bench in both halves. That’s often been just A.J. Hoggard and Malik Hall. This time, he was there with them, replacing fellow freshman Max Christie. Akins’ impact of late has stood out. Some of that is because he’s just a fun athlete to watch — the way he glides and such. But his first rebound Saturday wasn’t one of his help-side, out-of-nowhere rebounds. It was a flat-footed leap in traffic, in the paint, over a taller defender to bring it down. This, right after his 3-pointer from the left side tied the game at 10. Akins hit another 3 later in the half, when the game looked in hand, after he nearly turned the ball over when he was stripped from beyond. That was one of two gaffes I can remember. He got carried away and took a step-back jumper in the second half that got Christie quickly off the bench to replace him. Akins was back in shortly, though, and had a memorable no-look pass to Hoggard for a layup, after which he played to the crowd, cupping his hands around his eyes, highlighting his vision.

Most importantly, on the defensive end, Akins spent a lot of time guarding Toledo’s top scorer, Ryan Rollins, who he helped hold to 2-for-8 shooting in the first half. That was critical to a 25-3 Spartan run that spanned eight minutes. Akins was in for about half of that, over two separate stints. Rollins is a 20-points-per-game bucket-getter. Akins attentiveness and athleticism made his life difficult. Akins’ nine-point, seven-rebound, three-assist, no-turnover, strong-defensive day didn’t hurt his cause.

Max Christie missed some good looks early Saturday — the sort of looks that are insane to give him. He’s not feeling it right now. The first 3 he made was as pure a shot as his reputation. I liked that as the game went on he spent more time near the basket. If it’s not falling from deep, get your confidence up closer to the rim. After that, he hit another from long range, then stepped in for a 17-foot baseline jumper as Toledo fought to stay in it in the second half. Christie finished with 14 points on 4-for-14 shooting, with three rebounds and three assists. At some point soon, I’m telling you, his offensive stat line is going to be something like 7-for-12 and 23 points. The Spartans wouldn’t mind seeing it in this week’s Big Ten games against Minnesota and Penn State.

Pierre Brooks got some first-half playing time again, staying in the rotation. But it was just one two-minute, stat-less stint. By the time he entered in the second half, it was hard to tell if that was a rotational play, though the game wasn’t completely decided. But based on Izzo’s comments Friday and Brooks’ appearance Saturday, I think he’s in the rotation to stay.

3. Gabe Brown’s start was the stuff of alpha dog scorers. And needed.

MSU missed seven of its first 10 shots Saturday, a sleepy start to a late-afternoon game against a seasoned and somewhat dangerous mid-major opponent — the sort of opponent you don’t want to let believe it can win. The three early makes were all from Gabe Brown. At one point, the score was Toledo 10, Brown 7.

Part of being a leading man is being the consistent offense on a day when it’s not clear where else it’s going to come from. Brown hit two early jumpers and a 3-pointer while the Spartans were getting their bearings. MSU then scored 26 of the next 33 points. Brown kept this from being a horrible start for the Spartans. I’m not sure things unfold the same way otherwise, if the building gets nervous and Toledo can feel its opportunity.

Brown is not a perfect player. But on a team that has a lot of young guys and players trying to emerge, he provides a comforting baseline of aggressive offense that the Spartans can rely upon.

Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State basketball beats Toledo: 3 quick takes

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