How To Watch & Listen
Rutgers (11-4; 0-2) At Michigan State (10-5; 2-0)
Where: The Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan
Tip-off: Wednesday, January 4th at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Dave Revsine and Jon Crispin
Radio: WCTC 1450 AM & WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #135; Michigan State #47
KenPom Prediction: Michigan State 70 Rutgers 59 ; Rutgers is given a 16% chance to win.
Series History: Michigan State leads the all-time series 4-0, including three wins over the past two seasons. Rutgers lost to the Spartans by a combined 65 points last season in two games.
About Michigan State
Tom Izzo is looking to return the Spartans to the NCAA tournament for the 20th consecutive season, which is nothing short of remarkable. He scheduled a who’s who of college basketball in non-conference play for his young, but very talented team. However, injuries hit the roster hard and they will likely see their centers Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling miss the entire season. Michigan State lost to Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, and Baylor, all teams ranked in the top 15 of the KenPom rankings. They also suffered a bad loss at home to Northeastern on December 18th. However, they rebounded from that stunner to start Big Ten play with back to back wins over Minnesota and Northwestern.
Another key player missing during several non-conference games, including the loss to Northeastern, was star freshman Miles Bridges, who will return to action tonight. The 6’7” wing has only played in 8 games, but leads the Spartans in scoring and rebounding average with 16.6 points and 8.8 boards per game. He also is shooting 48% from the field and 39% from three-point range. However, it’s hard to know how much he will play tonight in his first game back.
Their frontcourt is bolstered by another freshman in 6’8” forward Nick Ward, who is their best interior player. He is averaging 13.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. With Schilling and Carter out injured, the Spartans tallest player on the court is Ward. He does get help in the post from 6’6” sophomore forward Kenny Goins, who averages 3.0 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench.
Michigan State loves to shoot from behind the arc and are averaging over 21 attempts per game. They have six players with at least 20 attempts from deep that are shooting 37% or better so far this season. Senior guard Eron Harris leads the team with 73 attempts and has burned Rutgers before, as he shot a combined 6 of 11 from three-points range in their two meetings last season.Freshman point guard Cassius Winston directs the offense and is averaging 7.7 points, 6.0 assists.
Keys To Victory
Own Offensive Glass & Second Chance Points
For Rutgers to have any chance in this game, they must do a great job of grabbing missed shots on the offensive end and finishing on second chance opportunities. Rutgers actually has a lot more size on the interior than Michigan State and they need to exert their will in the paint. They must bring a lot of energy and effort tonight, because this is their best opportunity for offense at the moment. The guards need to do a much better job of attacking the rim and not settle for long, contested jump shots. The more action Rutgers can force in the paint, the better.
Deshawn Freeman & Corey Sanders Must Show Up
It’s pretty simple, when Freeman and Sanders aren’t leading this team on the floor, Rutgers will have a difficult time winning or even be competitive. Freeman is averaging just 6.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in the first two Big Ten games, well below his season averages. While Sanders came off the bench at Wisconsin due to his missed flight, as well as spraining his ankle and most likely playing less than 100% against Penn State, he still played 23 minutes in both games. However, he shot a combined 4 of 21 from the field and averaged just 7 points and 2 assists in the first two conference games. Rutgers has no chance against any Big Ten opponent if they don’t get much more production from both players.
Don’t Allow Big Runs
Rutgers simply isn’t built to comeback from double digits deficits against Big Ten opponents due to their lack of three-point shooting. We saw on Sunday that once Penn State went on that 14-0 run, the game was essentially over. Tonight will require their best defensive effort of the season and they cannot afford any mental lapses or temporary loss of focus against Michigan State or they will put the game out of reach in a flash. The Spartans are too talented not to make runs at times tonight, but Rutgers needs to minimize the damage and counter back quickly.
Defend The Perimeter
In order to prevent big runs from the Spartans, Rutgers must do a great job of defending the three-point line. Michigan State will look to shoot from behind the arc early and often, which means Rutgers cannot afford to give them open looks. Last season, they shot 17 of 32 and 16 of 31 in their two games against Eddie Jordan’s defense, resulting in two 30+ point losses. Rutgers needs to come out playing lockdown defense from the opening tip or Michigan State could build a big, early lead that they will be unable to recover from.
Get Issa Going
On the flip side, Rutgers really needs freshman wing Issa Thiam to get back on track. After starting the season shooting 18 of 49 from three-point range, including making multiple shots from behind the arc in 7 of the first 11 games, he has struggled ever since getting sick with the flu. After playing just 3 minutes against Fordham and not playing against Seton Hall, he played 17 minutes against Wisconsin and just 9 minutes against Penn State. He went 0-6 combined from three-point range in those two Big Ten contests. Rutgers desperately needs shooters and Issa is their best threat, aside from Mike Williams. Coach Pikiell talked about him returning to full health and having a few good practices of late, so hopefully he will bounce back soon. Tonight would be a great time for that to happen!
In The Bonus
Although it’s always a daunting task to play at Michigan State, I actually think it might be a good thing for this team from a mental perspective. After their worst performance of the season Sunday against Penn State, having the quick turnaround and getting away from the RAC could be a good way to reset their mindset. I do think the pressure of expectations got to them a bit against Penn State and there is zero pressure on them in tonight’s game. It will take their best performance of the season to win at Michigan State, but I do think it’s a great opportunity to eliminate distractions and just play ball. It is going to be very interesting to see how they respond.