I don't know who is running on less fumes, the Rutgers men's basketball team or myself covering them all season. As much as Rutgers was focused and smart on offense in the first half, they were dumb and unorganized on defense the entire game. Michigan State came into the game leading the country in shooting 43% from three-point range. And yet, Eddie Jordan had no strategy or any adjustments in defending against them. There was no switch to a zone defense to give the Spartans a different look. There was no effort to eliminate open space on the perimeter, they were routinely beaten back down the floor in transition, and there was little awareness of the shooters on the floor. It was their undoing, as it has been all season.
Rutgers did come out aggressive and executed a smart game plan on offense, consistently attacking the rim. Corey Sanders showed zero signs of rust after missing four games due to his suspension and was putting on a show the first 8 minutes of the first half. He scored 13 points and on 5-6 shooting from the floor, including this impressive sequence that gave Rutgers a 22-19 lead with 11:55 left in the first half.
Rutgers was playing smart and unselfishly, dominating the paint on offense. They led 29-25 at the under 8 minute timeout and came out of the break with Sanders on the bench. It was understandable considering he just played 12 minutes straight in his first game action in two weeks. However, the predictable happened, as Rutgers immediately wasted two possessions in a row. Mike Williams was the culprit, taking a terrible three-pointer on the first possession and turning it over on the second. Michigan State tied it and Sanders came back into the game, but the Spartans completed a 9-0 run to take a 34-29 run with 5:37 left in the half. Amazingly, Rutgers fought back and answered with their own 9-0 run to retake the lead at 38-34 on three baskets in a row that were assisted on.
Despite their best offensive effort of the season in the first half, Rutgers trailed 43-41 at the break. Rutgers shot 16-24 from the field for 67% and were 8-9 for 88% from the free throw line. And yet they still trailed at the half because their perimeter defense was predictably bad, as Michigan State shot 8-18 for 44% from three-point range. The Spartans actually missed several open looks, meaning it could have been much worse at the break. It didn't help that Rutgers also committed 9 turnovers in the first half. Regardless, it was good to see Rutgers playing with a fight and spirit sorely missing most of this season and they outplayed Michigan State most of the half. Of course, they ruined it soon after.
At the start of the second half, the wheels fell off, the engine set on fire, and the bus literally blew up leaving the garage. Michigan State connected on 4-5 shots from deep to start the second half on a 16-3 run, forcing Eddie Jordan to call a timeout with 17:03 remaining and his team trailing 59-44. The positives of the first half were blown to smithereens as quickly as you could say the name Bryn Forbes. The senior guard entered the game shooting 50% from three-point range, tops in the country. You would think Rutgers would have made a concerted effort to get a hand in his face and be aware of his presence all night. Instead, Forbes roamed free and made Rutgers pay dearly, lighting them up for a Big Ten single game record with 11 three-pointers. He finished with a game high 33 points, taking over for all-conference guard Denzel Valentine, who had an off night. After MSU torched Rutgers for 17-32 for 53% from behind the arc in their first meeting of the season, they finished tonight's game 16-31 for 52%.
Sanders struggled in the second half, after the adrenaline wore off and his legs grew tired. He finished with 19 points and 6 assists, but went cold after his hot start and committed 5 turnovers. Jonathan Laurent played well and scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting from the field, but barely got the ball in the second half. Laurent was a big reason Rutgers dominated the points in the paint in the first half and he should have been a focal point of the offense after the break. Instead, it was a perfect example of how undisciplined Rutgers was in the second half, resorting to forcing long jump shots, many of them which were contested. D.J. Foreman was the only other Rutgers player to score in double figures, finishing with 11 points. A major issue was no Rutgers players grabbed more than 3 boards, as they were outrebounded by Michigan State 50-24.
And so Rutgers falls to 6-24 for the season and 0-17 in conference play. The Big Ten losing streak continues at 32 games and they also set the school record for 17 consecutive losses tonight. The good news is the second worst team in the conference, Minnesota, comes to the RAC on Saturday for senior night. After suspending three of their top six leading scorers for the season this week, Rutgers has their best chance all season to end the losing streak and avoid a winless season in conference play. But that is talk for another day. Tonight was about Rutgers continuing to be their own worst enemy. This team and their coach continue to make the same mistakes and play right into their opponents strengths. The only end in sight is the first round of the Big Ten tournament, which Rutgers will play one week from tonight.