No. 23 Rutgers (13-5; 5-2) will face another difficult challenge on the road tonight at Michigan State (12-6; 4-3). The game will air live on FS1 at 6:30 p.m. ET. The Scarlet Knights have lost by an average of 15.6 points in five defeats in East Lansing with Steve Pikiell as head coach. All have been by double digits except for a 76-72 overtime loss in 2018.
As Rutgers entered the AP poll this week and national buzz is increasing regarding this team, Pikiell has maintained his steady approach in a call this week. Today marks the beginning of a seven game stretch in which RU plays away from the RAC five times.
“We’ve got Michigan State at Michigan State. We’ve never beaten them there,” Pikiell said. “I don’t spend anytime on what team is ranked. It doesn’t effect anything. We have to get ready to play a hall of fame coach in a gym we’ve never won in against a team that is playing really well. They’ve won seven out of their last nine games. That’s really what all of my focus has been. I’m hoping that’s what the guys are focusing on.”
Michigan State owns Big Ten wins over Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin. However, they have lost back to back games. They lost by 9 at Illinois last Friday and then dropped a 1 point heartbreaker at home to No. 3 Purdue 64-63 on Monday. This is the Spartans third game in seven days and second without standout sixth man Malik Hall. He has a left foot injury that will keep him out an extended period of time. His versatility on both ends of the floor will be missed.
For Rutgers to win a third straight Big Ten road game for the first time ever, it of course all starts with playing elite defense. A strength of Pikiell and his staff with game prep is finding what the other team does well and then taking it away in the game. For tonight, a major key is slowing down AJ Hoggard. He is the facilitator of the MSU offense and a big guard at 6’4″. Hoggard has the No. 4 assist rate in the country at 41.8% but also has a high turnover rate at 19.1%. I think this is a Caleb McConnell special assignment that he can change the game by frustrating Hoggard and limiting his penetration. Hoggard’s drive and kickout ability is key for MSU in shooting threes.
Michigan State has a low free throw attempts to field goal attempt ratio at 24.9% (333rd), shoots just 48.5% from two-point range (241st) and gets shots blocked at a high rate of 10.1% (265th). While they are a very tough defensive team and are very good at limiting teams on the offensive glass (14th), they have the 357th lowest defensive turnover rate in college basketball (14.3%). Hall is also their most versatile defender.
The Spartans are shooting really well overall from three-point range at 36.7% (54th) but have struggled in their last two games, both losses. They made just 6 of 26 for 23.1%. The great equalizer though is guard Tyson Walker. He scored 30 points against Purdue and is their best deep threat at 41.0% (32-78).
“Their guards are planning at the highest levels, Hoggard and Walker,” Pikiell said on the call this week. “I mean Walker had 30 yesterday. They’re really well coached obviously. It’s a Michigan State team. Tough as nails. Fast, up and down the court. Really good rebounding team. That program will change the pieces and change the players, but they stayed the same with what they do. The physicality and how they play. They advance the ball as well as any team in the country. They’re playing really well. They’ve lost a couple of games here but they were on a seven game win streak prior to that. It’s a good basketball team. Their home winning percentage is as good as any program in the country. We have to continue. We have to be focused and trust our process, take care of our bodies, do what our guys do in the game and do it a high level.”
This matchup has the makings of a physical, low scoring game which is what Rutgers wants. These are the top two defenses in Big Ten play. Their strengths and weaknesses are opposites. Michigan State is No. 1 in limiting foes on the offensive glass while Rutgers has been the worst in league play. However, RU has the highest defensive turnover rate and MSU is last. The Scarlet Knights are No. 1 in two-point defense, while the Spartans are No. 1 in three-point defense.
Defending without fouling is huge in this game. MSU is shooting 75.4% from the line but they don’t get there often. RU has to be smart and not give the officials any easy foul calls to make. The Scarlet Knights need to hold their own on the glass, spread the Spartans defense out with ball movement and attack the rim offensively.
This is a game Cliff Omoruyi can dominate on both ends. He was more assertive against Ohio State and that needs to continue. His rim protection is critical tonight as well. So is the toughness and rebounding of Mawot Mag and Aundre Hyatt. If those two can finish around the rim, it will be a big boost.
Last season, Paul Mulcahy had 15 points and 12 assists in a 21 point win over the Spartans at the RAC. He was effective in backing down his defender in the paint and either knifing his way to the basket or dishing to open teammates. His ability to control the game offensively is key. Of course, getting Cam Spencer open looks from the perimeter needs to be a priority as well. And when Rutgers gets to the foul line, they need to continue to shoot around 75% to take advantage.
“Embrace the moment that we’re in,” Pikiell said regarding the message to his team. “Embrace that we haven’t won at Michigan State. You can’t have any more respect for a program in our league than a place like Michigan State. That’s what we try to do.”
A victory tonight would be historic and further the argument that the Scarlet Knights are a legitimate contender to win the Big Ten title. It would create real separation in the Big Ten standings in giving Rutgers a firm hold on second place. That being said, this is probably their most difficult game remaining along with a trip to Iowa next week. I expect RU to play hard and if they can make enough shots, they can pull off the upset with late game execution. This team’s mentality has been top notch and tonight is a test they definitely welcome.
For my musical choice, I selected “Someday” by the Strokes. I brought this song up last night in reference to Rutgers having lost to Purdue by 50 points seven years ago. The lyric, “Tables, they turn sometimes” is one of my favorite. I applied to RU hoops in always hoping that someday this program would be good. Those days have now been here for awhile. Tonight is a chance to take another step forward. Never having won at Breslin and never having won three straight Big Ten road games would be two fun boxes to check off. It’s going to be a real battle, but can you doubt this team? They’re going to win someday at Michigan State, let’s just hope it’s today!
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