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Rutgers Basketball Game Preview: #2 Michigan State

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As Dickie V would say, tonight will be Ugly with a capital U!

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

TV: 7:00 pm on BTN

Radio: Rutgers IMG Radio Network WOR (710 AM) & WCTC (1450 AM); WRSU (88.7 FM); Sirius channel 83; XM channel 195

Spread: Michigan State - 23.5

Roster Update

Corey Sanders was suspended for two weeks and will return tonight after missing four consecutive games. Deshawn Freeman and Shaq Doorson have been declared out for the season. Ibrahima Diallo had also been declared out for the season, but played 18 minutes against Northwestern this past Saturday. With the return of Sanders and Diallo, Eddie Jordan will have nine scholarship players available for tonight's game.

About Michigan State (KenPom #2 v Rutgers #306)

After losing three straight Big Ten games in mid-January, the Spartans have now won eight of their last nine games and are peaking at the exact right time of year. This stretch includes a 19 point win over Big Ten champion Indiana on Valentine's Day.  Of course, their coach is Tom Izzo, one of the greatest college basketball coaches ever, so this should not be a surprise.  They are led by all-world guard Denzel Valentine, who is averaging 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 1 steal per game.

Michigan State is a great shooting team, averaging 48% from the field, 43% from three-point range, and 72% from the free throw line.  They share the basketball on offense better than anyone in the country, averaging 21 assists per game.  The Spartans also lead the nation in four other categories, including scoring margin, rebounding margin, field goal percentage defense, and three-point shooting percentage.   They are a textbook example of balancing youth and experience, as their top 12 players are composed of three from each individual class. They are scary good and tonight could be a blood bath. Statistically speaking, I can't imagine there has been a bigger mismatch in a college basketball conference game ever, as the teams are more than 300 spots apart in the KenPom rankings.

Outlook

I decided against listing separate keys for this game, as Rutgers has proven to struggle at the most basic concepts and fundamentals this season.  There should be no hope anything will change for the positive in tonight's game. The biggest deficiency with this team all season has been their inability to guard their opponent from three-point range. Eddie Jordan has stuck to his strategy of playing man to man on defense, with an emphasis on clogging the paint, leaving plenty of open space behind the arc.  This strategy has failed repeatedly during the entire conference season, but Jordan refuses to change.

There is no reason to think Rutgers will defend Michigan State any differently tonight.  If that is the case, Rutgers will be playing a defensive strategy that plays directly into the hands of its opponent, who is the best three-point shooting team not just in the Big Ten, but the country. Jordan has cited a lack of depth and size for the reason he has emphasized his players to crowd the paint.  Tonight, with Diallo back and more scholarship players available than there has been in over two months, there would be zero justification to play a defense that is intentionally soft on the perimeter. Michigan State went 17 for 32 from three-point range in their 34 point win against Rutgers a month ago. Not changing strategy and expecting different results would be the definition of insanity. Not trying a 1-3-1 zone to take away gaps on the perimeter has to be worth trying.  We will see if Eddie switches his defensive strategy, but don't hold your breath.

It could get very ugly tonight and Jerry Carino interviewed Rutgers super fan and president of the Rutgers booster Court Club Brian Kelley, who is concerned about it.

"Set it all aside, no matter how you feel about (head coach) Eddie Jordan, no matter what you think about the way we’ve played," he said. "There’s one more game on the schedule we can win, and you can support our guys. I hope people don’t get caught up in whatever happens (Wednesday) and give the guys who have been here an opportunity to feel good about their career and send them out with a win Saturday," Kelley said.

Tonight does mark the return of Corey Sanders after his four game suspension for a violation of team rules.  My fear is he will try and do too much right away and not work to get his teammates involved from the start.  He will certainly be anxious to play in a game after missing the past two weeks of action.  Another reason to be concerned is this:

Obviously, Michigan State is the main reason for the NBA presence tonight and is loaded with talent. Denzel Valentine is a lock to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft this summer. However, Sanders is not shy about his own NBA dreams and he could come out pressing and forcing things, rather than let the game come to him.  It is crucial that he set the tone on offense by getting Rutgers into their sets and into the mindset of attacking the rim.  If you see Sanders force a contested jump shot early, it will be a very bad sign. He can't worry about his own stats or this game has the potential to go off the rails quickly.

If Rutgers has any chance for this game to be competitive, they cannot waste possessions on offense.  They cannot take possessions off on defense and must avoid big runs by the Spartans.  In my opinion, their loss on Saturday against Northwestern was the worst of the season.  Granted, the 50 point defeat to Purdue, the worst home loss in program history, was abysmal. However, the Boilermakers were a terrible matchup from the start and while Rutgers completely gave up in that game, a win was not expected.  To lose in the fashion that Rutgers did on Saturday was utterly embarrassing.  They came out in slow motion and were run off the court within the first 6+ minutes, trailing 19-4 at the first TV timeout.  Rutgers was their own worst enemy on Saturday. Northwestern was just 5-10 in the Big Ten entering that game, and Rutgers made them look like, well, like Michigan State.

With that being said, this week is a golden opportunity to end the 31 game Big Ten losing streak, as they host 13th place and severely depleted Minnesota on Senior Night this Saturday. Minnesota just suspended three key rotation players, including leading scorer Nate Mason.  If there was ever an opportunity to end the streak and avoid a winless conference season, Saturday is it.  But tonight is very important as well, because Rutgers can't expect to win Saturday if they no show and lay down for Michigan State tonight. With Diallo and Sanders back, this team needs to respond in a positive way. There can't be a hangover from the weekend and they can't feel sorry for themselves.  If they do and come out disorganized and flat, this game has the potential to top the Purdue loss and result in the worst home loss in school history. Either way, I have you covered with a survival guide for tonight's game. Let's hope for a strong effort tonight and prepare for the very worst.  The way this season has gone leaves us with no other choice.