'Like New York City cab drivers': AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker were rivals before they became Michigan State point guards
The competition between AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker spans far longer than these Michigan State practices, but the intensity is a good place to start.
On a given day, one point guard will check the other in practice. They'll get in each other's grill and press for turnovers. The goal is to exhaust. Tempers will flare until the practice ends, and then two East Coast point guards are getting in extra shots together.
"We can almost get into an argument or an altercation on the court because we're competing and we're competitors," Hoggard said. "Then we can go into the locker room like nothing happened."
The battles started 10 years ago at a national tournament. Walker was in the fifth grade and Hoggard in the fourth. They played on the same team there, but they'd practice together first, two of the best kids of their areas testing how much each other had to grow.
Hoggard is from Wayne, Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia. Walker is from Wesbury, New York, on Long Island. Those days at nationals were the start of a rivalry that would span tournaments and friendships between their parents and eventually route them back at the same Big Ten program when both needed a change.
"They're both like New York City cab drivers," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said with a smirk. "It's definitely a quarterback controversy."
Hoggard joined the Spartans last fall as a true freshman while Walker was playing his second season at Northeastern. One decided to leave for the Midwest while the other chose to blossom at a school in nearby Boston, but neither entirely found what he was looking for.
Hoggard struggled like many freshmen did in a global pandemic. Without the normal summer of time on the court with his new teammates, he was thrust early into Michigan State's vacant point guard role and never found his conditioning or much chemistry. He averaged 2.5 points on barely more than 30% shooting during a 15-13 season that ended with a loss in the First Four round of the NCAA tournament.
Walker had the opposite kind of season on an individual level, leading Northeastern with 18.8 points, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game. But the Huskies went 10-9 and failed to reach the NCAA tournament, and he was ready for something more challenging than the Colonial Athletic Association.
As soon as news hit Twitter that Walker was entering the transfer portal, he received a phone call from Hoggard. They talked about the battles they used to have and what it would be like to team up at a program as big as Michigan State. Hoggard's simple sell of Izzo's program ended up being the difference:
"It's a family," Hoggard told him.
Hoggard knew then that he just needed to fit into the family a little better — physically, mentally and socially. Walker arrived as they hit offseason workouts that have been described as some of the most intense of the Izzo era. Hoggard dropped more than 20 pounds, slimming down a "linebacker body," as Izzo calls it, into more of a basketball build that works up and down the court more easily.
At just 175 pounds, or 35 pounds lighter than where Hoggard is now listed, Walker is the kind of ball-snatching point guard that Izzo said could wind up as one of the best defenders he's ever had.
Throw in a personal rivalry, and he's become the measuring stick for Hoggard's changing body and style as a point guard.
"He definitely passes a lot more," Walker said of Hoggard. "When he was younger, he used to score a lot."
They're both trying to earn the starting nod as Michigan State's point guard, a position that has produced program legends such as Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel, Kalin Lucas and Cassius Winston but that went awry last season after Winston left for the NBA.
But because they are such different body types, they're treating the position as a tag-team depending on which playing style Izzo needs in a given moment. They're also experimenting with playing both on the court together in order to tap into some chemistry they never had to recreate.
"Being on the same campus and playing against one another every day just brought back memories," Hoggard said. "It brings the best out of you every day because you want someone you can go at and someone who can hold you accountable and it's never anything personal."
Contact Nate Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.