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MSU’s basketball team makes a difference in Moneyball: 3 quick quotes

1. Frankie Fidler looks the part

HOLT – I’m old enough to remember AJ Hoggard and Tum Tum Nairn shooting more like Steph Curry than they did in the Moneyball Pro-Am. I saw Pierre Brooks average 40 points a game and Nick Ward score 50+ points a few times.

So when Michigan State’s junior forward Frankie Fidler scored 45 points in his team’s win Tuesday night, including six 3-pointers — several of which came from closer than the college three-point line — the points and shots alone didn’t mean much for MSU’s fortunes this season, even if the performance was a great summer’s worth of entertainment.

But if you watched the game, it’s clear that Fidler will be an impact player for MSU this season. At least after Tuesday night, he’s more intriguing than he’s ever been. He’s a big, experienced, fluid rusher, a strong secondary ball carrier, a proven shooter — beyond pro-am — and he seems to see the game instinctively, whether it’s a no-look pass off the catch or finding a teammate cutting from a trap.

“He’s a traditional small forward,” senior Jaden Akins said of Fidler. “It’s good to have someone with that skill level to play that position.”

Akins is more than happy to move to shooting guard, a position that better suits his size. (For more on Akins, read this column from Wednesday.)

Fidler had a nasty bruise on his cheek Tuesday, just below his eye, a battle wound from Akins’ headbutt in a game that day at MSU.

Everyone knew Fidler was a big-time player at a smaller school — he averaged 20 points per game at Omaha last season, a lowly Division I program. The question is how his play will translate to the Big Ten level. There’s nothing to suggest that won’t happen Tuesday night. He may not be a star at MSU, but he has a chance to be a part of making everyone’s life easier.

“Being a guy who can create space, score goals,” Fidler said. “Being tall defensively, versatile offensively, being a tall guy at the 3 position.”

I think it will be very suitable.

2. First impressions of MSU’s other newcomers

This is an intriguing MSU basketball roster from a Moneyball Pro-Am perspective. Five newcomers are playing this summer, and a number of returning players are moving into new roles next season. Akins, Coen Carr, and Jaxon Kohler all have something to prove, they’ll tell you. Xavier Booker looks unquestionably stronger, wiser, and more prepared. He’s always been good in the conversation. He’s even more thoughtful now.

A year ago, Booker didn’t know what he didn’t know. Just like the three incoming MSU freshmen this year — guards Jase Richardson and Kur Teng and big man Jesse McCulloch, all of whom played Tuesday night. One of the best elements of the Moneyball Pro-Am is the first look at MSU’s incoming class.

Richardson has a fun energy and a bounce in his step. He and Gehrig Normand went back and forth with big shots late in their game against each other on Tuesday. I don’t know how ready Richardson is for the Big Ten or how many minutes he’ll play behind Jeremy Fears Jr. and Tre Holloman or off the ball behind Akins and Holloman, but I’m curious to see him in action. He looks like a pretty complete guard over time.

Teng is not flashy. But he knows his game and his spots. That’s obvious. He’s not built to shine in Moneyball, but he has some versatility in his game and looks like an old man (I say that as a compliment). It’s impossible to say how ready he is for minutes when you consider the number of players competing for the same minutes.

McCulloch will need some time. But he has some talent. You can see his appeal on the offensive end. On one play, he went up the wing, dribbled to a defender and let it fly over him. You don’t see that kind of dribble-face-up very often. I’d be surprised if McCulloch played much, if at all, this season. But he wasn’t recruited for this season.

That’s one reason why MSU’s coaches brought in center transfer Szymon Zapala. While the pronunciation of his first name still throws some of his teammates off, his size (6-foot-11, with some muscle) and experience are his assets. He appears to have good hands — he dunked a one-handed alley-oop over a defender at one point — and he moves well enough. And like Richardson, he has a pleasant energy. Beyond that, the pro-am is a tough place to properly evaluate centers.

RELATING TO: Moneyball Pro-Am summer basketball league 2024 guide: What you need to know

3. A healthy shift change

It’s probably for the best that the extra year of eligibility — the COVID year — is over. College basketball teams need to change. New identities, new leaders, fresh roster dynamics — all of these have been hampered by the presence of 23-year-old fifth-year prospects at programs all over the sport, including MSU’s. And while the Spartans were almost certainly better last year because Tyson Walker and Malik Hall were still around, you could tell this group was ready for something new this year.

Akins has been waiting for his chance to be the go-to guy. Holloman has been waiting for his turn as the leader. Kohler, healthy again and enjoying the big-man group around him, looks like a reborn man. Booker and Carr look eager. Normand is excited to be a part of things. This is their time. It’s their turn. I don’t know if they’ll get any better. But they’re starting in a good place as of July.

MORE: Couch: Saddi Washington didn’t plan to stay at MSU, but lifelong connections make her feel right at home.

Contact Graham Couch at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Graham_Couch.