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Can play at center be a strength for Michigan State in 2023-2024?
By Paul Konyndyk,
Twelve months ago, the biggest question mark at the start of Michigan State basketball practice was whether the trio of Mady Sissoko , Jaxon Kohler , and Carson Cooper could play functional minutes at the center position. While the performance level at center was consistently inconsistent for much of last season, all three returning five men did enough to get the job done collectively, while occasionally getting an assist from Joey Hauser and Malik Hall when the Spartans went with a small front line.
Now, a year older and possessing a foundation of experience to draw upon, Michigan State is no longer seeking to attain functionality at center. The Spartans are now asking their five men to provide consistent interior scoring. The standard for defensive consistency and rebounding is also higher now than it was last season.
While it remains to be seen if interior scoring will be a strength for this basketball team, it no longer appears that the center position is a weakness for the Spartans.
“I don’t know if we are great scoring in the post yet, but we are better,” Tom Izzo said on Monday before the first day of practice.
Better is a step in the right direction. A step that Michigan State needed to take.
All three returning centers for the Spartans had productive off-seasons. Each is substantially stronger than they were a year ago, which is to be expected from Kohler and Cooper, both of whom played supporting roles as freshmen last season. Sissoko, who was already Michigan State’s strongest post player, has gotten even stronger, having added 25 pounds during the off-season.
At 6-foot-9, 265, Sissoko should be a physical presence for Michigan State. He was hard to move last year, as a 33-game starter averaging 5.1 points, 6.1 rebounds in 21 minutes per game last season. He should be even harder to push around this season.
“Mady is 25 pounds heavier and just a different kid,” Izzo said. “Sometimes when you add strength you worry about losing speed, but he’s blocking shots, he’s been more aggressive. He’s better.”
As a first-year player last season, Kohler showed himself to be the most capable back-to-the-basket scorer among Michigan State’s centers. Lack of conditioning, however, held Kohler back from being a consistent contributor at the center position. During the past off-season, Kohler got serious about changing his body. As a sophomore, he is stronger and leaner. As a result, Kohler is moving better as a ball-screen defender, rebounding with greater consistency, and playing at a higher level for longer periods of time than he was capable of last season.
“Jaxon Kohler, his body is completely different,” Izzo said. “He has been jumping better, running better, doing things better.”
When Michigan State signed Cooper as a late addition in a 2022 recruiting class that included Kohler and point guard Tre Holloman, he was regarded by as high-ceilinged project with good long-term potential to make an impact as a defensive center.
Entering his sophomore season, Cooper is ahead of schedule for Michigan State. Last spring, Cooper established himself as a plus ball-screen defender. His late-season emergence helped take some of the defensive burden off Sissoko, and in so doing made Cooper a catalyst for Michigan State’s Sweet 16 run.
The confidence Cooper gained in the NCAA tournament has been a springboard for off-season growth. He worked hard to improve his back-to-the-basket game between last season and this, and he has also added much-needed upper body strength. Improved strength, foot quickness and the ability to move well laterally will enable Cooper to make significant impact as a plus defender given his 6-11 frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan. Cooper has also gained confidence in his jump hook, and improved strength has led improvement as a scorer.
“Carson, who was kind of my unsung guy, is a man now,” Izzo said. “He has really changed his body too. Sometimes added strength means added confidence.”
While each of Michigan State’s centers has improved between last season and this, there are only so many minutes to go around. Last season, Sissoko led the group in minutes played with 21.4, followed by Kohler (10.7) and Cooper (6.4). In the NCAA Tournament, however, Cooper saw his minutes increase. He played no fewer than 11 minutes in three games at the NCAA Tournament, as Michigan needed his contribution as an above average ball-screen defender in tricky match-ups with Southern Cal and Marquette to reach the Sweet 16. Cooper was especially effective in a Round of 64 game against Southern Cal, against whom he scored six points and added four rebounds.
Is there room for Sissoko to play 20 minutes or more this season, with Kohler and Cooper also taking on bigger roles? That may depend on whether the Spartans are able to get some minutes out of Kohler at the four, something Izzo hinted he may experiment with during his season wrap-up press conference last spring.
At 6-foot-9, 240, the biggest question mark with Kohler playing minutes at the four is whether he can play the position without being exposed as a defensive liability. With Kohler in the best shape of his life, there is no doubt that he is moving much better than he did as a freshman. Be that as it may, opponents with athletic fours capable of putting the ball on the floor could potentially put a damper on Michigan State stealing minutes for Kohler at the four.
On offense, there is a benefit to Kohler playing spot duty at the four. One of the hardest working players on this team, Kohler has shown an increased level of comfort with his face-up jumper. And he may be better positioned right now to stretch the floor with shooting than Michigan State’s two other fours, Malik Hall and Xavier Booker .
When healthy, Hall has shown over the course of his career to have a reliable jumper. His perimeter shooting percentage may have dipped last season, but that is easily attributable to a foot injury that robbed Hall of 11 games and a lot more time in the practice gym. Having undergone minor surgery on his foot last April, Hall did not have a full off-season to get his shot back to pre-injury form. Will it be back when the season gets underway on November 6 in the season opener against James Madison? Time will tell.
Booker has a smooth perimeter jumper and the confidence to let it fly without much daylight. Knocking down 3-pointers in games against other elite athletes in non-conference match-ups against Duke and Arizona, or in an exhibition match-up against Tennessee before that is an altogether different challenge.
PK’S TAKE : While how minutes will ultimately be allocated across the center remains to be seen, what doesn’t is that Michigan State is better equipped to handle competing against teams with good frontcourt personnel than it was last season. Don’t sleep on Cooper as a potentially dynamic defender with his length and athleticism. Don’t be surprised if Kohler emerges as consistent post-scoring presence. Look for Sissoko took make his final season at Michigan State his most productive.