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Tyson Walker was ‘missing piece’ to Michigan State’s success

Tyson Walker was ‘missing piece’ to Michigan State’s success
Tyson Walker has spent the past two seasons at Michigan State after beginning his college basketball career at Northeastern. (Credit: Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (BVM) – Throughout Tom Izzo’s 28 years as head coach at Michigan State, it seems he has always had a great point guard to lead his team on the floor. As the Spartans have made yet another Sweet 16 run in 2023, it should come as no surprise that he has another one: Tyson Walker.

Walker’s emergence in East Lansing hasn’t exactly followed the same path as many of those before him. Yet, it’s part of what makes his success story with the Spartans that much better.

Growing up in Westbury, New York, Walker first came on the radar while playing at Christ the King High School in Queens where he was on the same team as NBA guard Jose Alvarado. 

Walker later played a post-graduate year at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. 

Always a smaller player, Walker developed a chip on his shoulder and sought out to prove people wrong. But as a three-star recruit coming out of high school, the 6-foot-1 point guard wasn’t exactly garnering high-level college offers.

As a result, he stayed out East in Boston to begin his college career, playing for the Northeastern Huskies of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) under longtime coach Bill Coen. While the Huskies were coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019, Walker never got a taste of March Madness in his two years at Northeastern, but still led the team to above-.500 records both seasons.

Not only did the team see success, but Walker flourished individually. As a freshman, he started 29 games, averaging 10.4 points, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals. He led the CAA in both assists and steals as he was named to the conference’s all-rookie team.

In his sophomore season, Walker took a drastic leap forward, averaging 18.8 points, and a conference-best 19.3 points during the CAA season. One of his best scoring games came in a February contest at North Carolina where he put up 27 points. 

Walker also dished out 4.8 assists per contest as a sophomore, and his 2.4 steals per game helped him earn CAA Defensive Player of the Year. Walker made the All-CAA first-team in 2020-21 as well, and was named a mid-major All-American and Lou Henson Award finalist – an honor given to the top mid-major player in the country. 

Continuing to develop into a budding star, Walker had earned his chance to play at the Power 5 level following the 2020-21 season, becoming one of the most sought after names in the transfer portal. While he had many suitors, Walker’s final five came down to Michigan State, Kansas, Maryland, Miami and Vanderbilt

Ultimately, the guard decided the culture at MSU, and the chance to play for Izzo, would be the best fit.

“They’ve been talking to me since I went into the portal,” Walker said in an interview with ESPN after he transferred. “They talk to me about every day. Just what they have and what they need. They’re ready to win a championship. I’m the missing piece.

“It caught me by surprise, [Izzo’s] personality. We built a good relationship over the phone and through Zooms. What they were missing this year was a point guard.”

As the transfer portal has become a major part of the college basketball landscape over the past few years, old-school coaches like Izzo have had to adapt. It’s not like the Spartans have never landed a transfer. Senior forward Joey Hauser, who began his career at Marquette, is a prime example. However, the portal has created an unprecedented adjustment. For a coach who has seemingly mastered everything in his 28-year tenure, he did so again during the 2021 offseason, landing one of the top leaders he could find.

“In watching Tyson play, he’s a guy who can get his teammates open looks, he can get into the lane and he’s a crafty finisher because of his speed,” Izzo said in a statement after Walker chose MSU. “He was named his league’s defensive player of the year and he’s got a good feel and vision for the game. He brings two years of college experience with him and we’re looking forward to having him join the Spartan Family.”

In 2020-21, the Spartans barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament with a 15-13 record, losing a First Four game to UCLA. A big reason for the down season was the loss of one of Michigan State’s most legendary point guards, Cassius Winston.

No one expected Walker to be Winston when he first stepped foot in the Breslin Center. However, he quickly steadied the ship alongside another young guard in AJ Hoggard. In 2021-22, Michigan State got back over .500 in the Big Ten, reaching the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

In his first year in East Lansing, Walker posted averages of 8.2 points and 4.3 assists while shooting an impressive 47% from 3-point range. The scoring wasn’t what it had been at Northeastern, but Walker was a leader of a much more balanced offense, and made clutch shots when it mattered most, none more so than a late-season buzzer-beater to beat Purdue.

Coming into his senior year, Walker was part of an experienced group that has featured fellow seniors in Hauser and Malik Hall. Yet, in a tough Big Ten Conference, the Spartans didn’t do anything flashy, going 19-11, and 11-8 in the Big Ten, as Walker averaged nearly 15 points per game.

While the record was good enough for a top-four finish in the conference, MSU lost its Big Ten Tournament opener to No. 13-seeded Ohio State.

It led to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region, a portion of the bracket that also included fellow Big Ten foe in No. 1 seed Purdue, and some college basketball blue bloods in Duke and Kentucky. After the tournament’s opening weekend, it is Michigan State that is the lone team standing among those squads.

In their opening-round matchup, the Spartans outscored USC 38-28 in the second half to earn a 10-point win while getting 12 points from Walker on an efficient 5-of-9 from the field. That set up a matchup with No. 2 seed Marquette in the Round of 32, one of the hottest teams in the country that was fresh off a Big East Tournament title.

Seen as the clear underdog, Izzo’s March magic struck again, but it wouldn’t have happened without his senior point guard. These were the moments the longtime coach brought Walker in for, and he delivered, scoring 23 points while stymieing Marquette’s talented backcourt duo of Kam Jones and Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek. Impressively, Walker also had zero turnovers, and had an exciting moment in which he had his first collegiate dunk.

“I think this whole year, I’ve been doing a good job just not taking chances with my passes, staying under control,” Walker said after the win over Marquette. “Down the stretch, Joey and everybody just said to get me the ball at key times, and I made big plays.”

The game was a fitting culmination of Walker’s time at MSU. A true leader who has always come up clutch in big moments, he did so again to get the Spartans back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019. 

Their Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3 seed Kansas State will fittingly take place at Madison Square Garden, which means a trip back home for the senior guard.

“It means everything,” Walker said. “Growing up, seeing everything, playing at the Garden, it means a lot. Just to make those shots and then look over at my dad and see how excited he was, it means everything. 

“I just owe coach some pizza now.”

After the Round of 32 victory over Marquette, a choked up Izzo couldn’t hold back his emotions about his team or his star guard, sharing a story about what he told his guard to perhaps motivate him to get the Spartans to the next round.

“We’re going home, and I told him two things: If you get me there, I want a cab ride and one of them big slices of pizza,” Izzo said. “So, that’s what Tyson owes me. He can pay for it with his NIL money.”

Already, Walker has delivered on that promise.

The moment was just another example of the relationship Izzo has built with the transfer guard, and proves why this team is scary going forward in the tournament. Each of Izzo’s eight Final Four runs have featured a talented guard, whether that was Winston, Travis Trice, Kalin Lucas, Maurice Ager, Charlie Bell or Mateen Cleaves. 

Now, Walker might be the next to take Michigan State to college basketball’s biggest stage.

“We’ve still got some dancing to do, we’re going to New York,” Izzo said in a press conference following the win over Marquette. “I couldn’t be more excited for Tyson, and even AJ being a Philly guy.

“After watching the tournament, it really doesn’t matter who we play, when we play, where we play, or how, it’s going to be a hell of a game and I’m looking forward to it.”

The Spartans will take on Kansas State at 6:30 p.m. EST Thursday on TBS. Should they win that game, they will play Saturday evening against either Florida Atlantic or Tennessee.

Whether they get to the Final Four in Houston or not, Walker has left his mark on the Michigan State program. While no one would have expected it coming out of high school, the guard has become arguably the best player on one of the most dangerous teams in college basketball.

He’s proved those who didn’t believe in him wrong once again, and now, Walker has many believing in a Michigan State Final Four run.