The Rutgers men’s basketball team faces a tall task tonight on the road against perennial Big Ten power Michigan State. Despite starting with just a 10-5 record, the Spartans are playing their best basketball of the season. Star freshman Miles Bridges returns from his ankle injury tonight and they’ve started the conference slate with wins over Minnesota and Northwestern.
I was fortunate to speak with McLain Moberg from SB Nation’s Michigan State site, The Only Colors. I asked McLain about their difficult non-conference schedule, the many injuries the team has dealt with so far, as well as the expectations for the rest of the season. This is the only meeting scheduled between the two schools, so let’s find out more about the Spartans now ahead of tonight's game.
Michigan State has had an interesting first half of the season between replacing several key players from last season with highly touted newcomers, playing a very difficult non-conference schedule, and dealing with several injuries. What is the current state of the team and what are the expectations for the rest of the season?
Right now, Michigan State is down two big pieces for what might be the entire season, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. Both of these guys can play the Center position. When Miles Bridges went down for a bit with an ankle injury (he is now back for the game this Wednesday) fans freaked out. The team struggled to figure out how to work together as a cohesive unit without Miles there, particularly in games vs Oral Roberts and Northeastern. The stretch of games between Oakland and Northwestern, the team figured it out. Nick Ward took over, he became Michigan State's go to guy. Cassius Winston (a more traditional point guard than Tum Tum) learned to set up the offense beautifully, Tum Tum learned how to use his speed and athleticism to disrupt the other teams defense. To go along with that, guys like Kyle Ahrens, Matt Van Dyk, and Alvin Ellis all stepped up and played quality defense and offense with minutes they were not accustomed to seeing. The expectations are this Spartan team makes the tournament in March to extend Tom Izzo's consecutive appearances to 20. They plan on making a run because they have Mr. March on their side.
What happened in the recent loss to Northeastern at home and was it more of a fluke than a red flag?
At first glance, fans thought red flag, but if you dove into it and really examined the game, it was more of a fluke. A fluke the Spartans may have needed. Michigan State was only beat on the boards by two rebounds, so their continuous lack of size was not the problem. The Spartans let Northeastern shoot almost 50 percent from deep, while Michigan State only shot 31%. That has to do with perimeter defense and closing out on shooters, something they clearly did not do all that well in this game. My second key to losing this game is free throw shooting. Northeastern shot above 80% from the line, whereas the Spartans shot an abysmal 61.5%. They have struggled from the line all season, something that has cost them in other games or has certainly came close to costing them. Those were my two big concerns in this loss, the effort out on the perimeter as it pertains to closing out on shooters, and their free throw shooting. In the following three games, Michigan State managed to clean up their defense, while the free throws have mostly remained the same.
Eleven players are averaging 10+ minutes per game this season so far. Now that Mile Bridges is returning for this game, do you expect the rotation to begin to solidify and tighten up or will Tom Izzo continue to use his bench to wear down opponents?
It is expected, at least for this game, that Miles Bridges will be coming off the bench. The gameplan for him is to have a feeling out process. He needs some live game action to really evaluate how his ankle is doing. I do not expect him to play much in his first night back, so the lineup decisions should relatively remain the same. As for when Miles is completely healthy, I think Izzo has seen the hard work guys like Ahrens, Van Dyk, and Ellis have put in. He has seen their effectiveness and will reward them for it throughout the season. The bench players minutes will go down in time, but I believe it to be less then fans may expect. Bridges and Ward certainly need their big time minutes, but Tom sees real talent in those guys defensively and offensively when speaking to Alvin Ellis.
Interior defense is a strength for the Spartans and they've done a very good job limiting opponents on the offensive glass. How has Michigan State been so effective, despite not playing anyone taller than 6'8"?
Lots of Nick Ward and effort. What I mean by that is, it is my belief that defense and rebounding are more about effort and your desire to perform well, rather than talent. With three key players out recently, Michigan State has seen a lot of that. Despite having to play smaller than most teams, Michigan State is ranked 28th nationally for defensive rebounds per game (per ncaa.com). They are extremely effective because they utilize the talents and prowess that is provided by Nick Ward, while really relying on the efforts of the guards on the floor to come up with loose rebounds. Right now, Ward is averaging 6.8 rpg. The guards that typically play 10+ mpg are averaging 16.7 rpg cumulative amongst themselves.
Michigan State always likes to shoot from behind the arc and this season is no exception, as they average over 21 attempts per game. Although they have six players shooting 37% or better from three-point range for the season, the team is only 9-35 in their first two Big Ten games. Is it just a matter of cold shooting or have Minnesota and Northwestern defended the Spartans differently, causing lower percentages from deep?
It is a matter of both. When Michigan State played Minnesota, that was a terribly cold shooting night, especially for the first half, where they put up a season low 26 points. This team hadn't posted 26 points in the first half since playing Kentucky earlier in the year. Michigan State ended up shooting 45% vs Minnesota, but for much of the game they shot way lower than that. Late game heroics by Ellis and Ward helped that number go up substantially. In the Spartans most recent matchup vs Northwestern, it dealt with better perimeter defense by the Wildcats, as they knew Michigan State liked to shoot from deep and covered that well. The Wildcats ran into a bad shooting night of their own, just as Michigan State did against the Gophers. They may have six guys who are shooting 37% or better from three-point range, but this team needs to tone it down a bit with the attempts per game. I do not believe shooting from deep will end up being the makeup of this team.
Has the quick 2-0 start surprised you after all the adversity this team has faced in their non-conference portion of the season? Does this team now have the feel like it's on its way to becoming a classic Izzo team that makes a deep run in March?
The 2-0 start has surprised me because of the injury to Bridges. The Spartans have figured out ways to win without who is thought to be their best player. Once the chemistry began to build amongst the guys on the floor (without Bridges) , this team immediately got better. When Miles was healthy, he was doing everything, scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, and making plays no matter what end of the court he was on. In a way, this stunted the growth of everyone else, there wasn't given roles to other guys like Winston, Langford and even Ward. When Miles wasn't able to go because of a bad ankle, it helped the guys come into their own, others had to step up. Before everyone seemed to be relying on Bridges to make a play, now they rely on each other, they believe in one another and have came together as a cohesive unit. When Michigan State adds an already deadly Miles Bridges back into the lineup, this team may be hard to stop, despite any lack of size. If Michigan State makes the big dance in March for the 20th time in a row, Michigan State fans will do what they always do. Believe in Tom Izzo. It has rarely ever steered them wrong before.
What is your prediction for this game?
Michigan State's early success continues. I think the Spartans will continue to throw up three pointers in this one, only this time they fall through the net. Nick Ward will continue his onslaught as one of the most prominent big men in the conference, and minor minutes from Miles Bridges will prove to be a vital contribution in a Spartan Victory.
MSU 71 Rutgers 60
Thanks to McClain for great insight on Michigan State basketball. To read more on the Spartans during the season, visit our friends at The Only Colors. To read my answers to their questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.