The Rutgers men’s basketball opens Big Ten play on Friday night against 9th ranked Michigan State (5-2) in front of the first November sellout at the RAC in 21 years. The Scarlet Knights return home after upsetting Miami as double-digit underdogs on Wednesday night. Their reward is facing the Spartans, who are the favorite to win the Big Ten this season and will be angry after a surprising loss to Louisville on Tuesday night. Rutgers lost to Michigan State twice last season by an average of 7 points, including a 4 point overtime loss in East Lansing.
I was able to connect once again with McLain Moberg, who writes for SB Nation’s Michigan State site, The Only Colors. Expectations, what happened in the loss earlier this week, transition offense and more are topics we discussed. Let’s tip-off the Q&A here.
AB: Is it national championship or bust every season in East Lansing and what is the general feeling on Tom Izzo after a difficult year on and off the court for him and the program?
MM: No, it isn’t National Championship or bust every season for MSU. I think fans are a bit more reasonable when it comes to Izzo and their basketball program, but another first weekend exit in 2019 will absolutely justify criticism being thrown his way. Is the fanbase a bit spoiled? Yes. That being said, they were sold on the idea of at least one Final Four (and maybe a title) because they acquired Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson. Not to mention, MSU fell short of some lofty goals in the past year or two, especially with Bridges coming back for his sophomore year.
Fans still love Tom Izzo, as they rightfully should, but on the other hand, how long will they continue to wait for another spectacular run in March. It’s been awhile since they’ve seen an Elite Eight, Final Four, or a National Championship appearance.
AB: Michigan State just lost at Louisville in a game they were expected to win. What happened and what are the biggest issues with this team so far through seven games?
MM: 1. A sloppy first half where they trailed by double digits for the third time this season against a not so good Louisville squad.
2. Cassius Winston fouling out with four minutes left in the second half.
4. Joshua Langford needs to play a complete game. He shot poorly from the field in the first half (missing his three attempts) before coming alive in the second to keep it close.
If this loss says anything, it proves MSU will only go as far as Winston and Langford (more so Winston) take them.
AB: How well have the players that have seen playing time increase in the rotation this year acclimating themselves with returning standouts like Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, and Josh Langford?
MM: I think guys like Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins, and Kyle Ahrens fit right in with this rotation.
Kyle Ahrens replaced McQuaid in the starting lineup against Louisville and played exceptionally well. He tied for a team high in points (15) and led the group in minutes (41). He knocked down shots from deep and banged down low with the tall trees. He’s turning out to be an important rotation player for the Spartans.
Kenny Goins was a magician underneath the basket against Louisville. The man plays his role better than anyone. Goins grabbed 17 rebounds without attempting a single field goal. A guy who plays defense and grabs boards? Sounds like the kind of player Izzo loves to have.
Finally, we have Xavier Tillman, who has put in his fair share of work early on this season. He finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks. He seems very comfortable out on the court and is definitely someone to keep an eye on for Spartan fans.
AB: Looking at advanced statistics, MSU’s only weakness defensively appears to be not forcing turnovers from the opposition and opponents getting to the free throw line often. How has this impacted their effectiveness defensively and is it a long term concern, or more an adjustment regarding how to anticipate what is called a foul or not?
MM: The officiating has changed in recent years. I think fans would agree it’s slowed the game way down, which is the opposite of what most sports are trying to accomplish nowadays. Izzo addressed it after playing Florida Gulf Coast, essentially saying he feels bad for how these referees are forced to call a game. Tuesday against Louisville there was a combined 64 foul shots. In other words, there’s not a whole lot of flow to these contests.
For example, Cassius Winston was called for a foul in the second half while defending a three-point attempt. He might have grazed the players jersey on the side of his stomach and the whistle blew. It’s the classic “can’t touch a shooter” routine and it’s getting worse as the year goes on. So I’ll answer your question with the same premise. How do players (on any team) judge what is or isn’t a foul? Can you still play defense in this league?
AB: Michigan State is once again very dangerous from three-point range and has multiple players making them at a high rate to start the season. How successful have they been in generating open looks in transition and how much do they look to kick out off of penetration in the halfcourt?
MM: The Spartans love to run, it’s the very make-up of this team, in my opinion. MSU is ranked 17th nationally for three-point field-goal percentage (42.4%). They have six players shooting above 41% from deep including, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, and Marcus Bingham Jr.
Michigan State has shooters on the floor at any given time. If there’s an opportunity or a play to be made (from beyond the line) they are going to try and make it happen (MSU attempts 24.6 shots from range and makes an average of 10.4).
AB: What’s your prediction for the game and how do you see things playing out?
MM: I’ll take Michigan State in this one. MSU continues their road trip and heads to Rutgers where they will be greeted by the Knights fans. The Spartans ability to rebound the ball (32.14 def. and 12.57 off. per game), shoot threes, and run in transition will be too much for them to overcome. MSU 85 Rutgers 76
Thanks to McLain for giving great insight on Michigan State basketball. You can follow him on twitter here and for complete coverage of the MSU Spartans, check out The Only Colors. To read my answers to McLain’s questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.