Michigan State, Villanova get back on track

The final night of the 2023 Gavitt Tipoff Games brought two blowouts with it, and two get-right performances for Michigan State and Villanova, both of which entered the season with major expectations. 

With the Spartans throttling Butler, 74-54, and Villanova running Maryland off the floor, 57-40, the challenge between the Big Ten and Big East ended in a 4-4 tie. 

Here are three takeaways from the night and this edition of the Gavitt Games. 

A.J. Hoggard awoke to serve in the Robin role to Tyson Walker

Tyson Walker has been as advertised for the Spartans, who entered the season with legitimate national championship expectations. The fifth-year senior, who’s averaging over 23 points per game through the first four contests of the year, put up 21 points and four assists in the 20-point victory over the Bulldogs while shooting 8-for-15 from the floor. But in the midst of the Spartans’ losses to James Madison and Duke, Walker has been the given. 

The issue: Walker hasn’t had any help. On Friday night, his sidekick woke up. 

A.J. Hoggard assisted on two of the first three Michigan State buckets, setting the tone for what felt like an early-season must-win game for the Spartans. The senior guard finished with 14 points on 5-of-11 from the floor, knocking down his first triple of the year in the process. When the Bulldogs were trying to make one last pursuit and cut the lead to 13, Walker found Hoggard for a 3 that served as an early dagger. 

With Malik Hall posting 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists, Michigan State’s veteran supporting cast looked as strong as they have in the four games this season. The other key for this team is their interior play. Tom Izzo made a change to his lineup inside, electing to sit Mady Sissoko on the bench and start sophomore Carson Cooper, who answered the bell and posted 11 rebounds. The Spartans owned an impressive 42-32 advantage on the glass. 

As for Thad Matta and Butler, its first test of the season brought the same issues as last year. While the Bulldogs transformed their whole roster with new faces and only returned 9% of their scoring in hopes that a new-look offense would change things, Butler looked unsure of itself throughout much of the game on that end of the floor. St. John’s transfer Posh Alexander shot just 2-for-10 from the floor, while the Bulldogs finished 7-for-25 from downtown. 

In the end, Michigan State handled business at home, while Butler looked like the team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East preseason poll.

Michigan State’s Tyson Walker shows off wild crossover and finishes strong to extend lead over Butler

Michigan State's Tyson Walker shows off wild crossover and finishes strong to extend lead over Butler

THAT was the Villanova team we thought we would see this season

Let’s face it. After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 last season, the perennial heavyweight Wildcats entered this year with real pressure on Kyle Neptune and his staff to get the program on the right track in the post-Jay Wright era. 

After a loss to Penn on Monday at the Palestra, the questions began. Was this really going to be more of the same for a program that was the standard of the sport for the better part of the last decade? There’s not much patience in the Philadelphia area. The program’s donor base spent in the area code of $3 million in NIL money on the roster, sources told FOX Sports. So, in other words, this program has to get back to March Madness this year.

Put all the questions and concerns to bed, at least for tonight and this weekend. 

After crushing it in the transfer portal over the offseason, Villanova’s additions landed the opening haymakers on Friday night. Richmond transfer Tyler Burton and Washington State transfer TJ Bamba accounted for the game’s first eight points, with the pair combining for 26 to lead the Wildcats in scoring in the victory.

This was an eyebrow-raising result, as with 12:31 left in the game, Villanova held a commanding 49-17 lead. Maryland finished the game on a 13-2 run with reserves in at the end on the other side, so that 17-point gap doesn’t even fully tell the story of how much the Wildcats were in control.  

The defensive effort by the Cats stood out, as they held the Terps to a 4-for-27 clip in the first half. 

Was Villanova at its best offensively? No, as Justin Moore only had eight points, but the Cats really locked in on stopping Maryland stars Jahmir Young and Julian Reese, holding them to 5-for-18 shooting from the floor. 

That’s what is nice for Moore this year – he has material help. The point guard situation is still a question mark, with Mark Armstrong playing a bit up and down to start his sophomore season, but the wing play on this team is elite, and big man Eric Dixon was solid again with seven points and eight rebounds. 

As much as this is a relief for Villanova, it’s a real gut-punch and reality check for the team heading back to College Park. 

The Terrapins returned Young, Reese and Donta Scott – three starters from a second-round NCAA Tournament team last year – and welcomed in a top-25 recruiting class. This program was picked third in the Big Ten preseason poll. 

Now sitting at 1-3, this season is off to a nightmare start for Maryland, and a road game at UCLA on Dec. 22 is the only non-conference résumé-building opportunity left for the Terrapins. 

For Villanova, bouncing back was a must. The Wildcats will meet Texas Tech in the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday, with a potential Thanksgiving Day game against North Carolina if the Cats can get past the Red Raiders. 

How should the Big Ten and Big East feel after the Gavitt Games entering Thanksgiving Week? 

Let’s put a bow on the week, and the eighth and final edition of these games. With the 4-4 split, the Big Ten owns a 34-30 edge over the Big East over the last eight seasons, with the leagues splitting in four of the eight years that the games were held. The Big Ten had the edge in three of the other four seasons. 

Those numbers show how competitive these conferences were in this conference challenge, the first of the year and one that injected much-needed energy into the second week of the college basketball calendar. 

It is very understandable that the Big Ten is trying to figure out its conference schedule and how that will all work with UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington entering the league next year. 

My plea to these conferences and any other league willing to listen: Find a way to get a conference challenge on your schedule in the first week of the college hoops season. Will coaches necessarily be for it? Probably not, but here’s the selling point: Winning helps you a whole lot more than losing would ever hurt you. Playing power-conference competition early in the season is never going to get your program ripped on because it is early. Losing to a cupcake? That presents a whole different can of worms and could carry significant ramifications in the long run for your season. 

Sources tell FOX Sports that the Big East is seeking options to fill the void with another scheduling alignment with a conference in the future. 

As far as where these leagues stand after the conference challenge, here’s how I see it: 

Purdue won a game it should have over a Xavier team that is depleted in the frontcourt. Michigan made as big of a statement as anybody with the blowout win over St. John’s, but the Wolverines just coughed that momentum right back by getting upset by Long Beach State on Friday night. Rutgers commanded a weak Georgetown team at home, while Michigan State beat a Butler squad that will finish in the bottom four of the league.

Let’s flip it: After a slow start, the Big East responded with Providence beating Wisconsin in what was thought to be a toss-up game. After losing to Kansas State on Friday night, that win for the Friars over the Badgers is now even more precious. Marquette and Creighton showed why they are two of the top-eight teams in the country, with the Golden Eagles notching a key road win over Illinois and the Jays outlasting Iowa. And finally, Villanova beat Maryland in much more dominant fashion than anyone could have foreseen. 

Because of Michigan State’s early-season struggles paired with NCAA Tournament contenders heading into the year, Maryland and Wisconsin, holding multiple losses, I’ll say that the Big East should feel better about itself at this moment. 

The top-three teams in the Big East – Marquette, UConn and Creighton – are all unbeaten, Providence and Xavier have looked solid, and Seton Hall is also unbeaten early on this season. We knew Georgetown and DePaul would have a rough year. The key question mark at the moment is St. John’s, which has been porous defensively and really needs to come out of the Charleston Classic by taking two of three games. 

Overall, though, the Gavitt Games have been a resounding success over the last eight years, serving their purpose of providing marquee matchups early in the season and allowing teams to get a nice litmus test ahead of the daunting Thanksgiving Week tournaments.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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