No, A Transfer Portal Big Wouldn’t Have Changed Things For Michigan State This Season
Michigan State basketball is hurting, losers of four out of six and seemingly inept in the low post. Worse, we've reached the point of the season that we all knew would eventually arrive.
Much was made of Tom Izzo's choice to abstain from the transfer portal this past offseason and leave three scholarships vacant for the 2022-2023 campaign. MSU lost its top two big men from a year ago: Marcus Bingham, who averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in about 19 minutes per game, to graduation; and Julius Marble, who averaged 6.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in about 14 minutes per game, to the transfer portal. That meant the Spartans were losing a total of about 16 points and 10 rebounds per game in the form of their Nos. 1 and 2 options in the low post.
Izzo elected to ride with junior Mady Sissoko, who averaged one point and one rebound in 4.5 minutes per game last season, as his starter at the 5, despite a lack of experience and even requisite height (Sissoko is 6-foot-9, although Marble shares that same dimension). Izzo also knew that the only other players he'd have at that position would be a pair of true freshmen — Jaxon Kohler, a 6-foot-10 highly sought-after four-star recruit, who also was a Top 100 player in the 2022 class, and Carson Cooper, a 6-foot-10 center with much less hype as he was labeled a developmental prospect.
Many Spartan fans and media criticized Izzo's decision at the time, and some even promised to revisit it during the season, virtually proving the self-fulfilling nature of this intellectually dishonest "analysis." And that's the point I wanted to get to here.
Because even if Izzo had leveraged the transfer portal to land another guy to play the 5, the Spartans would almost certainly be in the exact same position they find themselves now after getting dominated and humiliated in West Lafayette.
Don't get me wrong — I'm not saying Izzo's decision shouldn't be scrutinized and second-guessed. That's the role of the media, and fans are certainly well within their right there, too. No one is above reproach, not even Hall of Fame basketball coaches like Izzo.
But my point is to call out the fallacy in the belief that the transfer portal represents some sort of panacea for Michigan State's woes this year. Just because the other revenue sports coach at MSU hit the home run of all home runs in the transfer portal for football a couple of years ago doesn't mean it's some guaranteed resource. Far from it. In fact, the early returns suggest the transfer portal is even more volatile than traditional recruiting.
If you think about it, that makes a ton of sense. There's a reason those guys are in the portal. That doesn't mean they all suck and couldn't contribute with a change of scenery. But it does mean that it's more likely than not that those players aren't going to make a difference for you. (Transfer portal players with the last name "Walker" who came to MSU not withstanding, of course.)
There's also this inconvenient truth: Don't you think that, given the opportunity to upgrade his team with a bonafide starting center who was sure to appreciably increase the potential of the 2022-2023 Spartans, Izzo wouldn't have taken it? Indeed, he tried with at least a couple of guys in the portal last offseason.
Remember — just because a coach wants to use the transfer portal doesn't mean he'll get whichever player he wants. And that's pretty key to this discussion, too.
But let's just play in that completely irrational universe, where Izzo can treat the portal like a Carvana for starting big men. Who, then, would've made all the difference for MSU this year?
Would it have been Pete Nance, the 6-foot-11 big who traded in Northwestern purple for North Carolina blue? He's been solid for the Tar Heels, averaging 11 points and 6 boards. But how quickly we've forgotten the utter abuse Kofi Cockburn of Illinois subjected Nance to last year, averaging 20.5 points and 12 boards in the two matchups between Illinois and Northwestern.
"But Cockburn is gone from the college game," you say. Yes, but the Big Ten is somehow even tougher down low this year, with already established bigs like Hunter Dickinson, and other returners who have gotten even better, like Zach Edey and Trayce Jackson-Davis.
If Nance's defense (or lack thereof) against Cockburn last year seems familiar to you, then take a look at this chart of MSU's performance in the low post since the New Year.
|Opposing Starting Center Points||Opposing Starting Center Rebounds||MSU Starting Center Points||MSU|
Starting Center Rebounds
|Purdue (Zach Edey)||38||13||4||2|
|Iowa (Trayce Jackson-Davis)||16||11||10||10|
|Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis)||31||15||9*||6*|
|Rutgers (Clifford Omoruyi)||12||12||12*||9*|
|Purdue (Zach Edey)||32||17||0||8|
|Illinois (Dain Dainja)||20||7||5||6|
|Wisconsin (Steven Crowl)||19||3||6||11|
|Michigan (Hunter Dickinson)||18||7||2||7|
|Nebraska (Derrick Walker)||15||9||5||10|
|AVG. PER GAME||22.3||10.4||5.9||7.8|
*These stats belong to Jaxon Kohler, who didn't start. All others belong to Mady Sissoko.
Looks to me like Nance would've provided more of the same on defense, with a little added offensive production. But at Michigan State, you know which comes first, and it will always be that way under Izzo. Translation: Nance or anyone else could dazzle on offense like Michael Jordan in his prime, but if they couldn't defend they'd be riding the pine.
Who else, then, from the portal would've made all the difference for MSU this year? KJ Williams, perhaps? He was a prized transfer out of Murray State, who's giving LSU 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Hey, remember when MSU played Kentucky in the Champions Classic earlier this season? Sissoko did just enough against Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning Player of the Year, who still put up 22 points and 18 boards. But Sissoko was able to foul Tshiebwe out, which ultimately led to the Spartans winning in double overtime.
Well, it turns out Williams has gone head-to-head with Tshiebwe this season, too. The result? Tshiebwe scored 19 points and grabbed 16 rebounds as LSU lost. So much for Williams making all the difference, too, I suppose.
What I'm trying to get across here is that there was no single player — or combination of players — that reasonably would have kept MSU from struggling in the low post this year. Part of that is due to a lack of depth on the Spartans' roster, and another part is due to an absolute plethora of excellent big men across the Big Ten, nearly all of whom present mulifaceted matchup problems for opponents on a nightly basis.
You also have to remember this. Think of how good Joey Hauser has been this year, averaging 13.7 points and 7.6 boards per game. He's exorcized the demons of his inconsistency issues and become one of State's most reliable guys this year.
If Izzo had gotten another big in the portal, you probably wouldn't have gotten that out of Hauser this season. He would've either transferred/gone pro due to a lack of available minutes on the court for MSU, or he would've had to share time with the newcomer and have far less opportunity to be the kind of player he's become in 2022-2023.
Minutes are not infinite — they're a zero-sum game. That means that when one player gets more minutes, someone else loses those minutes. That's definitely relevant here. A transfer big would've taken valuable playing time away from Kohler and Cooper, both of whom sorely need those invaluable developmental reps.
Increase your altitude on this and you'll get some clarity. If Izzo had gotten another big through the portal, Michigan State's record probably wouldn't be much different than it is in actuality. I'd wager it would be exactly the same.
Because even if State had landed a Nance or Williams, the good they would have provided on the offensive end would most likely be negated by the bad on the other side of the court. Maybe one of those guys would've helped State to hold on and beat Gonzaga on the aircraft carrier, but they also would've cost them against Tshiebwe and Kentucky, for example. Maybe one of those guys would've hit a couple extra buckets against Purdue, but Edey would've posterized them just like he did Sissoko and Co.
A transfer big may have helped here and there, but MSU's issues in the low post ultimately were unavoidable this year.