Finally, Rutgers beat a Big Ten team from the state of Michigan! The 67-37 win over the Spartans was the programs first in 12 tries against Tom Izzo since becoming conference foes.
“I have tremendous respect for Michigan State,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Coach (Tom) Izzo is the best coach in the country. Just pleased our guys came out ready, we got out rebounded by 20 the last time we played them, huge key for us. We were connected, our bench was excellent, those guys came off our bench and gave us great energy. Our starters got us going, we really shared the basketball and obviously it’s the first time we’ve ever beaten them so long, long overdue, but we defended, and we rebounded and when we do that, we are a pretty good basketball team.”
Rutgers produced several significant accomplishments in the victory over Michigan State on Thursday night, both as a team and individually as well. Let’s highlight the many notable statistical achievements in the win over MSU, beginning with several program records since joining the Big Ten during the 2014-2015 season.
The 30 point margin of victory was the largest for Rutgers against any Big Ten opponent since joining the conference. It was the worst defeat for Michigan State since losing to no. 1 North Carolina by 35 points on December 3, 2008.
It was also a wire to wire victory, as Rutgers never trailed after a Caleb McConnell basket seven seconds into the game gave them a lead they never relinquished.
In holding the Spartans to just 37 points, it was the fewest allowed by Rutgers since joining the Big Ten seven seasons ago.
Pikiell said of the defensive effort that “Our guys were locked in and we’ve had signs of being a good defensive team. Today, we kind of put it together and everyone contributed, our length, steals, blocks, we had a little bit of everything, but our guys were locked in and they were connected. It makes a big difference against a team like that, they really can run transition, they got a lot of points from the foul line last time we played them. I thought we did a great job keeping them off the free throw line, I thought a huge key in the basketball game. Michigan State’s really good and they’ll win a lot of games, so pleased to be playing at home today and pleased the way our guys performed from the opening tip. That was a 40-minute game.”
Rutgers forced the most turnovers against a Big Ten opponent since the program became a member with 21.
In regard to defensive efficiency, Rutgers held MSU to a rating of 56.9, which is equivalent to how many points they were on pace to score per 100 possessions. That is the lowest defensive efficiency rating that Rutgers has ever produced in Big Ten play. The second lowest defensive efficiency rating in a Big Ten game under head coach Steve Pikiell was last season against Indiana at 73.9.
As a team, Rutgers held Michigan State to just 29% shooting, including only 5 of 18 on layups and just 4 of 20 for 20% from three-point range. Perhaps even more surprising, the Spartans only attempted five foul shots (1-5) in the entire game, as Rutgers committed just 14 fouls on the night.
Although the Scarlet Knights didn’t shoot the lights out, finishing 43% shooting from the floor, including 5 of 19 for 26% from three point range, they were much better from the foul line for a second straight game. They connected on 10 of 12 attempts for 83.3% and they are now shooting 75.9% from the charity stripe over the past two contests.
In forcing a program best 21 turnovers in Big Ten play, RU swiped 14 steals and held a dominating 33-12 advantage in points off of turnovers. That’s a ridiculous number of points to score off of turnovers and almost equaled the total scoring for MSU in the entire game.
After getting bodied on the boards in tune to a -20 rebounding margin in the 23 point loss at Michigan State earlier this month, Rutgers flipped the script with 40 rebounds and a +11 rebounding margin in Thursday’s victory. RU also held a dominate 36-18 advantage with points in the paint.
As for individual efforts, it was a balanced scoring attack with six players scoring 8 or more points.
Myles Johnson was spectacular once again and was the best player on the court. He finished with 13 points on 6 of 9 shooting that included two impressive putback dunks, grabbed 14 rebounds and swatted 5 blocks for a second consecutive game. It was his fourth double-double of the season. He also held Joey Hauser to just 6 points and 1 rebound in the rematch after the Marquette transfer posted a 9 point, 12 rebound performance in the first meeting.
“You guys see what kind of elite defender that he is, but he does a lot of things for us,” said Pikiell. “He’s a good screener, he’s a good passer, keeps basketballs alive, he can really guard, he’s really gotten to the point where he can guard almost any position. His best days are ahead of him and he’s a great teammate. Real pleased, I mean 14 rebounds. Big reason we don’t get out rebounded is when he puts up numbers like that, but I really thought our guards chipped in, Geo (Baker) got 5 (rebounds), Paul (Mulcahy) got 5, we got 7 from Ron (Harper Jr.). I thought all the guys kind of chipped in because (Michigan State) is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Myles sets the tone up front and today he was scoring and so active he earned a day off tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
Geo Baker is the steady hand this team desperately needs and he stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points on 5 of 9 shooting, as well as 5 assists, 5 rebounds and a career high 5 steals. He also had just 1 turnover and during his 31 minutes on the court, Rutgers outscored Michigan State by 35 points.
On Baker’s performance, Pikiell said “Just so connected in every way. He got five steals too, a career high for him . When he defends like that, he really helps us and in the last two games. His defense has been outstanding and we need him. He’s a very good defender and he’s very knowledgeable about our sets and the different things we want to do defensively and then in turn, it makes him connected on the offensive end in all our sets that we try to run. He played really, really well today in the whole game. He was like a coach on the floor and it really gives us a different dimension when he’s locked in that way defensively. He hasn’t been in foul trouble, he’s been really playing, so really pleased.”
Give credit to Jacob Young and Montez Mathis, as the duo combined to score 18 points off the bench in just the second game in their new roles. Young did struggle to play under control at times, committing a season worst 6 turnovers, but he did shoot 50%, made both three-point attempts and both foul shots, as well as chipping in with 2 boards and 2 assists. Mathis was 3 of 5 from the floor, including 2 of 3 from behind the arc, while also swiping 2 steals. It was a solid bounce back game after playing just 3 minutes in the win over Indiana. If Young and Mathis can continue to embrace their new roles off the bench and be productive in a consistent way, Rutgers will be all the more dangerous as the season progresses.
Ron Harper Jr. had a miserable shooting night, making just 3 of 15 attempts for 9 points, but he contributed in other ways with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, 1 steal and 0 turnovers. He is a competitor and his ability to do other things when his shot isn’t falling is critical for this team.
Caleb McConnell also struggled shooting wise (3 of 10), but finished with a solid stat line of 8 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals. He also shut down Aaron Henry, defending him almost exclusively and holding him to just 7 points on 3 of 10 shooting and six turnovers after scoring a game high 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting in the first meeting this season.
“Caleb McConnell, good to have him back,” Pikiell said. “Sticks his nose in there and guards Henry. The last time we played, Henry really had his way with us. He (Caleb) had that assignment and he took it himself.”
Rutgers moved up 12 spots in the KenPom rankings after the dominating win over Michigan State. They are now 28, just one spot worse from where they started the season. It’s the highest they’ve been since losing at Michigan State almost four weeks ago. RU is now 7th in both offensive and defensive efficiency in Big Ten play this season.
Now there is just one Big Ten team that the Scarlet Knights have not beaten, which is Michigan, who they are scheduled to play in Ann Arbor on February 18. A more urgent piece of business is that Rutgers heads on the road to face Northwestern on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. ET with an opportunity to get back to a .500 record in Big Ten play.