Rutgers (12-13; 5-10) At No. 10/11 Michigan State (21-5; 12-3)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan (capacity 15,000)
Tip-off: Wednesday, February 20th at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler & Jon Crispin
Radio: Live Listen - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM//XM 387- Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Jake Ostrove & Sam Marsdale
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #85; Michigan State #4
(Rutgers stayed even since the loss to Iowa)
KenPom Prediction: Michigan State 78 Rutgers 59; Rutgers has a 4% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Michigan State -16.5
Series History: Michigan State lead 8-0 all-time, including a 78-67 victory in late November this season.
SB Nation Michigan State site: The Only Colors
About Michigan State
Head coach Tom Izzo is in his 24th season at the helm for MSU, who started this campaign at 18-2 before losing three in a row, but have now recovered with a current three game winning streak. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage (48.9%), field goal percentage defense (37.1%), as well as rebounds (41.8), blocks (5.8), and assists (19.7) per game. Nationally, Michigan State is first in assists, second in blocks, fifth in rebounds and tenth in scoring margin. In terms of efficiency, Michigan State is 6th in Division I on offense and 7th on defense. They have the most efficient offense in Big Ten play and third most efficient defense.
The issue for Izzo and this team is that two of its three best players are out. Josh Langford (15.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists) has missed the past 13 games with a season ending injury. Now frontcourt stalwart Nick Ward (15.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks) will be out for an extended period of time with a hairline fracture in his left hand, which he suffered in their last game on Sunday. Of course, the Spartans still have leading scorer and top point guard in the Big Ten in Cassius Winston. He is who makes the highly efficient offense of Michigan State go and is averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 assists, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. Winston is an excellent shooter and is 46.5% from the field, 43.7% from three-point range and 81.3% from the free throw line. He also has the 10th best player rating in the country per KenPom.
The Spartans will be looking for other players to step up in Ward’s absence tonight. The frontcourt still has solid contributors in 6’7” senior Kenny Goins (7.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 blocks) and 6’8” sophomore Xavier Tillman (8.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.0 steal) who will need to help fill the void. Other players that could have a bigger role include 6’6” junior forward Kyle Aherns (5.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists) and 6’6” freshman Aaron Henry (4.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists)
Michigan State is also dangerous from three point range, as they are shooting 38.6% as a team. Winston is averaging 2.5 makes per game while 6’4” senior guard Matt McQuaid is the most accurate, making 44.2% on 104 attempts this season. McQuaid is averaging 8.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game.
Notes: Rutgers is averaging 67.6 points per game this season and are shooting 41.4% from the floor, 31.5% from three-point range, and 62.8% from the free throw line.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo
“The problem for me with Rutgers is they’re the fourth biggest team in the country. The number one tallest lineup in the Big Ten. They’ve got ten guys that are playing 13 or 14 minutes or more. One thing they have is great depth. They’re going to just keep throwing people at us. I have a lot of respect for the job Steve Pikiell has done with them. This team is so much better. Guys that were averaging one or two points are now averaging six or seven and five. Everybody has gotten a little bit better. Two guys that were starting last year that were playing a lot are playing the least amount of minutes. That means they’ve got better players around them. Eugene Omoruyi is an elite level player. He can do a lot of different things. He can score it, he can shoot it, he can penetrate, he can guard. He plays with incredible energy. I think he is one of the guys that could play a lot. Their point guard is very good. He’s given us trouble. They have great size. Guards are 6’5, 6’4… 6’6 at times. Our last three matchups (vs. Rutgers) have been decided by 11 points or less. I’m sure this game is going to be no different. We’re going to have to learn how to play in close games and maybe that will help prepare us for down the stretch.”
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell
“I love the enthusiasm around our program. Our guys keep getting better. There are some exciting opportunities coming up with some huge games in front of us. We’re on to the next challenge. Michigan State is the best team in the league. They’ve got really good players and a Hall of Fame coach. They’ll be ready and well coached. They play really good at home. It’s unfortunate for them that they have some injuries, but they have some very talented players ready to step in off the bench as well.”
Keys To Victory
No Easy Baskets
MSU is tops in the Big Ten with effective field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage and offensive rebounding, so they generate a ton of shots in the paint and near the rim. Rutgers needs to bring its “A” game on the road and play the Spartans tough on every possession. As this team learned in the loss to Iowa, every single possession counts. Michigan State is also capable from three-point range, as they rank 5th in Big Ten play at 35.5%. Life on the inside will be easier with Nick Ward out, but post players Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman are very good players as well. The interior defense needsto be stout and on the perimeter Rutgers needs to stay in front of Cassius Winston, who is one of the best point guards in the country. Geo Baker defended him well in the first half of the first game, but ran into foul trouble and never got back on track. Winston, who finished with 22 points and 6 assists in the first meeting, is the key to slowing down the Spartans, but that’s much easier said than done.
Win Battle Of The Boards
MSU is 1st in offensive rebounding rate in conference play, but just 13th in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate. Rutgers has actually been the more balanced rebounding team, as they rank 4th in offensive rebounding rate and 3rd in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate. The Scarlet Knights have won the rebounding battle in 8 straight games and have a +56 rebounding margin over that span. It won’t be easy tonight, but Rutgers needs to attack the glass on both ends to limit the Spartans to one shot per possession as often as possible, as well as generate second chance scoring opportunities against them.
Win Turnover Margin
The one weakness of Michigan State is they are 12th in offensive turnover rate and 11th in defensive turnover rate in Big Ten play. Rutgers is about the same, coming in at 10th in offensive turnover rate and 13th on the defensive end. The point is though this is an area can have a clear edge in if they can take care of the basketball, which is an absolute must if you want to win on the road. They held a +2 turnover margin against Iowa, but are still prone to periods of too many turnovers in a short time. However, if they can generate some points in transition off of Michigan State turnovers, while not allowing the same on the other end, it will help keep them in this game.
Play Smart Offensively
Michigan State is tops in Big Ten in defending effective field goal percentage, two-point percentage and three-point percentage. However, with Ward out, they lose a key cog in the paint. Rutgers needs to make multiple passes in each halfcourt possession and make the Spartans work on the defensive end. They can’t settle for long jumpers and need to continue to attack the basket. Hopefully, they can draw contact and foul calls inside, but they MUST convert at the line to have any chance to win tonight. They’ll need multiple players contributing in the scoring column this game and I think Caleb McConnell, Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr., who have all improved immensely since the first meeting, can cause the Spartans trouble driving from the wing. Myles Johnson as shown flashes inside and has a chance to be a problem for the Spartans inside in the absence of Ward. I also think this a game Shaq Carter can step up and be useful near the rim.
The Iowa loss was about as difficult a defeat that a team can experience. However, they can’t let it affect their performance tonight against a top ten team in college basketball. Pikiell speaks about preaching a short memory and focusing on the task at hand often, as well as exerting toughness on the road. Rutgers will need to show all of this tonight in what is a test of their character and will. They need to be ready to play tonight, as the Spartans are always a difficult challenge, even if they are missing two key players. Also, remember that Rutgers took them to overtime on their last visit in January 2018, losing by just 4 points. They did so behind great defense, winning the rebounding and turnover margins, as well as making 13 of 15 free throws despite shooting just 40% from the floor. They’ll need a similar effort tonight. It would be a great sign to see this team come out angry and focused on giving Michigan State all they can handle once again. Despite being heavy underdogs, I think this team is capable of shocking the Spartans if they play to their potential. They have won three games on the road this season (Miami, Penn State, Northwestern) and played well their past two away from the RAC. Hopefully, they can keep up the strong play on the road tonight.
Appropriate Music Selection
Last month I began a new feature incorporating an appropriate Pearl Jam song to the current state of the team in each game preview. I decided to vary selections and artists more so in order to have a more diverse catalog to choose from. For this game, I chose Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic, I Won’t Back Down. I wrote here about what Petty meant to me after his death almost a year and a half ago. This song has always been one of my favorites and these lyrics are appropriate for Rutgers heading into this game: “But I won’t back down, No I’ll stand my ground, Won’t be turned around.” Hopefully, Rutgers can let it all hang out and be relentless against the mighty Spartans tonight. Here is live footage of Petty singing this great anthem on his last ever performance.