No. 15 Rutgers (7-2; 3-2) at No. 23 Michigan State (7-3; 1-3)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: The Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan
Tip-off: Tuesday, January 5 at 9:00 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2 - Dave Fleming and Jay Bilas
Stream: ESPN WATCH
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 19, which is the same since a 2 point loss to Iowa; Michigan State is 50, which is two spots better since a 7 point win over Nebraska.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 112.2 (18th) Defense 92.0 (27th); Michigan State- Offense 111.8 (25th) Defense 96.3 (80th)
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 76 Michigan State 75; Rutgers is given a 54% chance to win.
Vegas Line: Michigan State -1.5
Series History: Michigan State leads the all-time series 10-0, including a 77-65 victory in their last meeting on December 8, 2019.
Michigan State SB Nation Site: The Only Colors
Michigan State - 6’6” junior Aaron Henry (13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks); 6’9” redshirt junior Joey Hauser (12.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 50% FG, 36.6% 3-pt FG); 6’2” sophomore Rocket Watts (9.8 points, 3.9 assists, 1.7 rebounds); 6’5” redshirt senior Joshua Langford (8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 36.1% 3-pt FG); 6’8” junior Gabe Brown (8.6 points, 1.8 rebounds, 55.9% FG, 47.2% 3-pt FG); 6’7” sophomore Malik Hall (6.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 51.2% FG, 45.5% 3-pt FG); 6’0” junior Foster Loyer (6.2 points, 2.5 assists, 1.8 rebounds, 41.2% 3-pt FG); 6’8” junior Thomas Kithier (3.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 64.0% FG); 6’3” freshman A.J. Goddard (3.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists); 6’11” junior Marcus Bingham Jr. (2.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks)
Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (22.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 53.6% FG, 48.3% 3-pt FG); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (15.7 points, 5.2 assists, 2.4 steals, 2.1 rebounds, 43.5% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (15.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steal; 40.5% 3-pt FG); 6’4” Geo Baker (10.2 points, 3.2 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.2 assists, 58.5% FG); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 40.0% 3-pt FG); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (5.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 block, 72.2% FG); 6’10” freshman Dean Reiber (1.6 points, 1.4 rebounds); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (first game of the season against Iowa: 0 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist)
Heralded freshman Cliff Omoruyi is at best questionable to play on Tuesday night missing the previous three games due to a knee sprain suffered during the win over Illinois on December 20. Per head coach Steve Pikiell, Omoruyi had not returned to practice prior to the Iowa game.
About Michigan State
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. 4) and on the road to Northwestern by 14 points (KenPom no. 56) and to Minnesota by 25 points (KenPom no. 24). Michigan State won its first conference game at Nebraska (KenPom no. 116) on Saturday by 7 points.
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.
Michigan State is averaging 79.9 points per game, but they also are allowing 75.6 points per contest. They are shooting 45.1% from the field, 34.9% from three-point range and 75.9% from the free throw line. MSU is currently 25th in offensive efficiency overall, but only 13th in Big Ten play. They are just 80th in defensive efficiency overall and 13th in Big Ten play.
MSU has a solid turnover rate but struggles at forcing opponents into turnovers (305th nationally). While they are a strong foul shooting team, they are just 10th in free throw rate in Big Ten play, while they have the second to worst defensive free throw rate in conference play. Opponents are shooting 35.6% from three-point range (245th nationally) and allow the second highest percentage from behind the arc in Big Ten play (39.3%).
To be clear, the Spartans have a roster full of talent, but the pieces haven’t fit as tight as in years past and there are obvious weaknesses in a way that is not typical for this perennial powerhouse.
Keys To Victory
The lack of post presence from Michigan State has allowed opponents to pressure their guards on the perimeter, making it harder for their offense to generate open looks on a consistent basis. On the ball pressure from Jacob Young, Montez Mathis, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell is key in this game, as they have a size advantage and the ability to force turnovers and bad shots from the Spartans. Cassius Winston is gone and the combo of Rocket Watts and Foster Loyer are vulerable to pressure defense. Expect Rutgers to pick them up full court at times similar to how they did against Iowa. On the flip side, MSU doesn’t force opponents into many turnovers and RU needs to make sure not to make costly unforced errors and allow any easy baskets because of them.
The key to putting on the ball pressure on the Spartans guards in the halfcourt is keeping them from running in transition. MSU is traditionally proficient in getting up the floor quickly with outlet passes to ball handlers after defensive possessions. Slowing them down and keeping their guards from attacking the rim will make it much harder for Michigan State. They have the third fastest tempo in Big Ten play and while Rutgers needs to look to run at times, they want to control the pace as much as possible. They can’t get caught flat footed after missed shots and Baker and Young are key to making sure this doesn’t happen.
Long Distance Accuracy
Rutgers is shooting 43.5% from three-point range in Big Ten play, which is tops in the league. Their improvement in this area is stunning, as they are shooting 39.3% overall from deep, which is 23rd nationally. Last season, they shot just 30.8% from behind the arc, which was 295th nationally. I’ll admit I’m terrified that the Scarlet Knights might be due an off shooting performance from long range, but at the same time they have been incredibly consistent. Harper Jr, Young, Mathis and Mulcahy are all shooting 40% or better from three-point range, which is incredible. They need to continue to share the basketball and find the open shooters on the perimeter in this game, as MSU is susceptible and the opportunities to make them pay will be there. Harper Jr. has been highly effective shooting from deep off of screens but Izzo will likely have defenders switch off of them, so his awareness of this and deferring at times might be necessary. He’ll need to pick his spots wisely and good looks could come on transition threes.
Free Throw Margin
While Rutgers was a putrid 4 of 12 from the foul line in the 2 point loss to Iowa, the limited number of attempts was just as alarming as the low shooting percentage. My big issue with their struggles from the free throw line is that their best shooters aren’t getting there enough. Jacob Young is tied for the most attempts on the team and shooting 78.4% from the line, but he only had 2 attempts in the loss to Iowa. Paul Mulcahy is shooting 80.0% on 20 attempts but shot just once from the charity stripe against the Hawkeyes. Geo Baker is a 76.2% career free throw shooter, but had zero attempts against Iowa. McConnell’s return can help in this area as well, as he shot a team best 79.2% from the line last season. The Scarlet Knights need to attack the rim due to MSU lacking a true rim defender and obviously, take advantage of trips to the foul line by converting as much as possible. On the flip side, Rutgers needs to be aggressive defensively but remain disciplined in order to avoid fouling. Don’t expect a friendly whistle in the Breslin Center and RU can’t afford to allow the Spartans to get into the bonus too early in either half. Keeping Myles Johnson on the floor is hugely important as he could dominate the glass in this game and profit on second chance scoring opportunities.
Take the names off the jerseys of both teams and based on this season so far, Rutgers has been the better team. The Scarlet Knights have been keenly aware of historical marks that they have been checking off and beating Michigan State for the first time in program history will surely be on top of their minds. They have been competitive against much better MSU teams in recent seasons and even led at the half last season in East Lansing. After an emotional defeat on Saturday, the veterans of this team must lead early in this game and make sure Rutgers gets off to a strong start. Bring the fight to the Spartans and make it a physical game. I believe they are the better team, but they have to prove it and tonight is their chance. They are good enough to impose their will and need to do so from the get go.
Appropriate Music Selection
For the tenth game of the season, I chose “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies. I think this game will be as much of a mental challenge as anything else. Rutgers has a chance to make a run in Big Ten play in the upcoming stretch of games, but need to take care of business tonight, first and foremost. The core group of this team is experienced and has been through a lot the past three seasons. They need to smell blood tonight and make sure they get that bad taste out of their mouths after the disappointing loss to Iowa. Don’t let a missed opportunity snowball.
They are capable of beating anyone when they play well and this is their best chance to finally beat Michigan State. The last time they were on the road, they fell apart in the loss to Ohio State. They need to be mentally strong and not let bad foul calls or anything else to get in their heads. Staying mentally focused on the task at hand and avoiding bad stretches in this game is a major key to getting back on the plane as victors.