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Game Preview: Michigan State at Rutgers

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Includes how to watch, stats, pregame quotes from Tom Izzo and Steve Pikiell, as well as keys to victory.

Rutgers v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Michigan State (8-4; 2-4) at Rutgers (8-6; 4-6)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey

Tip-off: Thursday, January 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET

TV: FS1 - Gus Johnson and Jim Jackson

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/XM 372, Jerry Recco & Mark Peterson; WRSU 88.7 FM - Chris Tsakonas and Brant Wolff

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 40, which is 4 spots better since the 4 point win over Indiana on Sunday; Michigan State is 46 which is 5 spots worse since a 1 point loss to Purdue on January 8.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 110.1 (56th) Defense 93.3 (40th); Michigan State - Offense 110.8 (42nd) Defense 94.6 (52nd)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 73 Michigan State 70; Rutgers is given a 60% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers -2.5

Series History: Michigan State leads the all-time series 11-0. including a 68-45 victory in East Lansing on earlier this month.

Michigan State SB Nation Site: The Only Colors

OTB Podcast featuring Jerry Carino

Key Contributors

Michigan State - 6’6” junior Aaron Henry (13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks); 6’9” redshirt junior Joey Hauser (11.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 36.7% 3-pt FG); 6’2” sophomore Rocket Watts (9.7 points, 3.4 assists, 1.8 rebounds); 6’5” redshirt senior Joshua Langford (8.9 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 36.6% 3-pt FG); 6’8” junior Gabe Brown (7.5 points, 1.7 rebounds, 54.0% FG, 46.2% 3-pt FG); 6’7” sophomore Malik Hall (5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 52.1% FG, 41.7% 3-pt FG); 6’0” junior Foster Loyer (5.2 points, 2.3 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 41.2% 3-pt FG); 6’8” sophomore Julius Marble II (4.1 points, 1.6 rebounds, 73.1% FG); 6’3” freshman A.J. Hoggard (3.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists);6’8” junior Thomas Kithier (3.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 65.4% FG); 6’11” junior Marcus Bingham Jr. (2.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (18.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 40.2% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.6 points, 4.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 2.1 rebounds, 36.4% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (11.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 37.8 % 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (9.6 points, 2.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 steal); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 1.4 steals, 1.0 assists, 63.3% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (6.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 38.5% 3-pt FG); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals) 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (5.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 64.3% FG)

Injury Updates

Michigan State will be playing its first game in 20 days against Rutgers after pausing due to COVID-19 positive results within the program. Head coach Tom Izzo spoke in detail about the current state of the team here. They resumed full practices this past Monday after conducting individual workouts for close to two weeks. As for player availability, Izzo expects 11-12 players to be active for tonight’s game. Gabe Brown will miss Thursday’s game due to a COVID-19 positive test result. Josh Langford is eligible to return to action on Thursday, although how much he actually plays remains to be seen.

Rutgers has no significant injury issues.

About Michigan State

Tom Izzo spoke about his team’s preparedness for Thursday’s game this week, stating “We’ve been in contact with Rutgers. Obviously, you’ve seen how fast things can change, but we’re raring to go, ready to go. If there’s one thing that we have gone through, it’s that we have a large number of players now that have had it throughout the school year. We’re prepared to play on Thursday. Everything’s a go for us on Thursday. Rutgers is prepared for us to play Thursday. And hopefully, we’ll get some people back as time marches on.”

This is not an elite Tom Izzo team after losing two its two best players from last season’s 22 win team in Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, who were program staples. They’ve had a hard time replacing their production, despite returning seven players that are part of this season’s core rotation, in addition to the return of Josh Langford who was injured last season.

The Spartans started 6-0 this season which included a win over Duke (KenPom no. 11) before beginning Big Ten play with three consecutive losses. MSU lost at home to Wisconsin by 9 points (KenPom no. 11) and on the road to Northwestern by 14 points (KenPom no. 72) and to Minnesota by 25 points (KenPom no. 29). Michigan State won its first conference game at Nebraska (KenPom no. 116) , followed by the blowout win over Rutgers. MSU then suffered a 1 point loss to Purdue (KenPom no. 31) before shutting down due to COVID-19.

The most impactful newcomer is Marquette transfer Joey Hauser, who is leading the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. While he is essentially replaced Tillman, he is much more of a perimeter player and the Spartans don’t have a reliable post presence this season because of it. He hurt Rutgers in the first meeting, scoring 9 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

A major change to the rotation right before the COVID-19 pause was inserting freshman A.J. Hoggard at the point instead of Rocket Watts.

Michigan State is averaging 76.0 points per game and are allowing 71.3 points per contest. They are shooting 44.8% from the field, 34.7% from three-point range and 76.6% from the free throw line. MSU is only 12th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency, but are 6th in defensive efficiency.

Offensively, the Spartans are third in free throw percentage in league play, but are just 11th in two-point and three-point field goal percentage, as well as 12th in effective field goal percentage and turnover rate. Defensively, MSU is 2nd in turnover rate, 3rd in block rate and 4th in three-point field goal percentage. but are 12th in free throw rate.

How Michigan State performs against Rutgers after the long layoff between games is the big question for this matchup.

Steve Pikiell Pregame Quotes

On the first meeting with Michigan State

“We didn’t play well obviously, we really struggled to do the things you have to do. It’s a Hall of Fame coach, it’s the elite program in our conference. We haven’t beat them so we have to beat Michigan State. Home or away, it doesn’t matter where. We have to play really well. We got outrebounded by a lot, our defense really struggled. But we got another opportunity to get better and they’ve been practicing so they are going to be well prepared for us. We just have to continue to play our kind of defense and rebound. Those will be huge keys because this team can really score and they can rebound as well as any program in the country.”

Changes to starting lineup

“I don’t put a whole lot of stock into starting and stuff. I think I have a lot of starters. I don’t really spend a lot of time [on it] and I don’t think it’s as important as everyone else thinks it is. It is just a matter of guys playing and getting us off to good starts and we hadn’t been getting off to good starts.”

Read more on the rotation here.

The recent struggles of Montez Mathis

“Everyone goes through these times of the year. Montez was great the other day too, other guys were just playing really well. I trust him a ton, he’s a good player, he’s gotten a ton of minutes and started a lot of games for us. He was the happiest guy in the locker room after we won. He will be back today, he will have a great practice and we need a good Montez too moving forward. Everyone has stretches like this, our season is longer than any, this isn’t a 10 game season, you are going to have stretches like this and you have to keep fighting through them. You have to embrace the challenges that this league and every game brings and Montez will do that.”

Keys To Victory

Tonight’s game is a bit of a mystery. No one knows how Michigan State will perform in its first game in three weeks after having limited practice time and players returning to full health during this time. At the same time, Rutgers is in the middle of changing roles that resulted in a much needed win over Indiana on Sunday after a five game losing streak. Can the spark continue tonight or will they fall back into lackluster play against a team they were badly beaten by earlier this month?

What Rutgers needs to do to win is pretty basic.

They need to be committed on the defensive end. They held MSU to just 28 points in the first half of the first meeting, but stopped playing hard in the second half. RU is capable of limiting the Spartans and contesting every shot is hugely important against a team that will be looking to find a rhythm shooting wise after such a long layoff.

Rutgers needs to do a much better job on the glass after a -20 rebounding margin in the first game against MSU. Having Cliff Omoruyi available for this matchup could make a big difference. The Spartans have length on the perimeter, but are not loaded in the frontcourt as in years past. The wings and guards of RU must be more aggressive in crashing the boards. Second chance scoring margin will be a key differentiator in this game.

Offensively, the Scarlet Knights were stifled by MSU in East Lansing. Izzo wisely defended the perimeter by switching off of screens and pushed the RU guards to run sets beyond the arc, higher than they prefer to. Rutgers struggled to get penetration and shot selection suffered. The reason for optimism is that RU learned against Indiana that with ball movement and making the extra pass, it resulted in getting high percentage looks. The timing of that breakthrough couldn’t have been better and the hope is keeping Geo Baker on the ball will keep this mindset at the forefront of the offense tonight. Playing Paul Mulcahy more minutes like he did on Sunday will benefit the offense as well.

I would like to see Rutgers prioritize Myles Johnson in the post on the low block more in this game. Johnson is best when he converts off of offensive rebounds and alley-oops. However, whether Joey Hauser or Mady Sissoko defend Johnson, feeding him with his back to the basket and taking the action to them could provide him high percentage looks while also opening up teammates along the perimeter if Izzo adjusts by doubling down on the ball. It would give Rutgers a counter to how they played in the first meeting. Posting up Ron Harper Jr. at times will allow him to create more scoring opportunities for himself, as opposed to hanging along the perimeter the way he did in the first meeting.

As always, the more Rutgers can take advantage of transition scoring opportunities, the better. I’d like to see some fullcourt pressure defensively as well, which RU has proven effective with at times. Expect Pikiell to mix-in some zone looks as well, something he has been doing so more lately, especially with Mulcahy on the floor. They need to stay disciplined defensively though and not commit fouls by being too aggressive or the Spartans will take advantage at the foul line.

Basically, the more Pikiell can switch things up and force MSU to identify and adjust to during the game, the harder it will be for Izzo to dictate control and force Rutgers to play the way he wants them to. This will be a chess match between the two coaches tonight and a big test for Pikiell.

Starting well and playing with a lead can wear down the Spartans, who may have a fatigue issue regardless after the long layoff. Hitting foul shots down the stretch is a must.

Appropriate Music Selection

For the fifteenth game of the season, I selected “Hazy Shade of Winter”, which is a Simon and Garfunkel song that the Bangles famously covered in the eighties. Although it wasn’t on one of their albums until its Greatest Hits release in 1987, they first started covering it live in 1983. Why is 1983 relevant here? Rutgers announced on Wednesday they are wearing new throwback uniforms honoring the 1983 team that last won an NCAA Tournament game. I love the decision and I coincidentally heard this cover a couple days ago, which made me think it was perfect to include in the preview. Rick Rubin produced the song and if you don’t appreciate the Bangles impact in rock history, well I don’t know what to tell you other than you should.

As for the lyrics that tied in the current situation for Rutgers: “Hang on to your hopes, my friend. That’s an easy thing to say. But if your hopes should pass away. Simply pretend that you can build them again.”

I also think for all of us living during a global pandemic, this current time feels like a hazy shade of winter. Does anything feel normal right now?

As for this game, Rutgers has never had a better chance to finally beat Michigan State than tonight due to the long layoff the Spartans just had. The Scarlet Knights also have a lot to prove, as they need to show that they can build off of Sunday’s performance against Indiana and build some positive momentum or this season could ultimately unravel for good.

Rutgers needs to show urgency, play with energy and come out sharp. Putting MSU in an early hole and establishing a rhythm is key in controlling this game. They are capable to do that. I think tonight they take another step forward and finally slay the Spartans.