With frigid temperatures and wind chill expected on Saturday, Rutgers fans hope the Scarlet Knights can warm things up against Michigan State inside Madison Square Garden.
“Rutgers nation will be there and that’s the most important thing,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “We have a lot of alums in that area. It’s a great city. So excited and you’re playing as good a team, as good as a program as the rest of the country. So excited for that opportunity.”
The game will air on FOX at 12 p.m. ET as the much anticipated rematch is a crucial contest for both teams.
MSU is 14-8 overall and is one of six teams at 6-5 in the Big Ten. Rutgers is 15-7 overall and tied with Illinois in second place with a 7-4 league mark. The Spartans will be playing on five days rest after losing at No. 1 Purdue by 16 points. RU is coming off its largest margin of victory against a Big Ten foe ever in beating Minnesota by 35 points on Wednesday.
In the first meeting, Michigan State made 12 of 22 from three-point range for 55%. Rutgers allowed far too many open looks and MSU did a great job of finding shooters on the arc through penetration.
In addition, freshman big man Jaxon Kohler had a breakthrough performance with his first career double-double. He had 12 points on 6 of 9 shooting along with 11 rebounds and 3 blocks against RU. After posting 9 points and 6 rebounds in a loss to Indiana, he’s been held scoreless in just 16 minutes in his last two games combined.
On the flip side, Rutgers shot a horrid 2 of 17 from three-point range (11.8%). Cam Spencer had an awful shooting night in making just 3 of 14 from the floor even after making his final two shots of the game. Aundre Hyatt was 0 of 7 from the floor scoring just 2 points. Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy played relatively well but each committed an uncharacteristic 4 turnovers apiece.
The one thing Rutgers did really well in the first meeting was rebound. They had an astonishing 18 offensive rebounds but only produced 15 second chance points. RU was +12 on the offensive glass and finished with a +8 rebounding margin overall.
So what to make of the rematch?
From a Rutgers perspective, I think there is reason to feel good about having a second chance against Sparty. It was the best shooting performance from three this season for Michigan State while Rutgers had its second worst outing from three, making one more from deep than they did against Temple. You’d like to think that gap will be much less wide on Saturday. RU lost by 13 in the first meeting in a game MSU had a +30 point differential from three. It’s amazing the game was as close as it was.
In addition, Rutgers is sharing the ball at an elite level right now. They’ve combined to dish out 53 assists over two games, the two highest totals in any Big Ten games the program has ever played. RU is No. 12 nationally with a 61.3% assist rate this season. While the Scarlet Knights can struggle shooting wise at times, they’re putting themselves in good spots to score
“When you’re attached and connected and playing team basketball, that always lends to good results,” explained Pikiell. “Michigan State’s one of those teams – (Tom Izzo) is as good a coach as there is in college basketball, and he’s got talented guys. Obviously (they) played much better than we did before. When you’re unselfish and you share the basketball and you’re connected on the defensive end, that usually leads to good results, but we’re gonna have to be that way.”
Paul Mulcahy is the key to the Rutgers offense with his ability to facilitate, control pace and get the ball in the hands of the right guys. He also usually has a size advantage with his defender and when he can get into the lane and generate good looks for himself, he’s at his most effective. Mulcahy was also effective on the catch in the middle of the lane against Minnesota. He’s been able to hurt zones this way in the past. Regardless of how MSU defends, Mulcahy is the key to breaking it down and generating high percentage shots.
I also think Rutgers has a chance to damage from mid-range. Mulcahy, Cam Spencer, Caleb McConnell, Mawot Mag and Aundre Hyatt can all hit from 8-12 feet out. Pulling up and shooting over the packed in defense of MSU that crashes the boards could change the game.
RU also needs to finish at the rim and was only 16 of 23 on layups in the first meeting. And if they can’t, they need to go strong and draw fouls. If this is a home game as declared by the NCAA, Rutgers should do their best to get the refs to blow a home whistle.
And of course, Rutgers has to hit some shots from behind the arc. They don’t need to be lights out, but making 6-7 threes would go a long way. I do think getting into the flow and adjusting to the depth perception of the rims in a big arena would help. Don’t force threes, look for open space on the perimeter and make the extra pass from penetration.
AJ Hoggard is the key to Michigan State’s offense. Caleb McConnell needs to lock in, keep him out on the perimeter and make others have to create shots on their own.
It’s not fair to expect RU to rebound as well as they did in the first meeting, but they also can’t allow MSU to eat on the offensive glass the way Minnesota did on Wednesday.
“We got to do a better job of watching film,” Pikiell said after the win. “We’ve got to make some adjustments because Michigan State, that’s one of their fundamentals, they rebound. We’ve got to take care of that.”
Rutgers needs to come out with energy but stay composed as well. The environment should be fun at the Garden and it should be a pro-Rutgers crowd. Focus on the game plan, limit turnovers against a team that doesn’t force them and get into it defensively from the jump.
The x-factor might be the foul line. Both teams shoot at 74% and while Rutgers doesn’t get to the line enough, Michigan State get there even less. Whoever can get to the charity stripe more and take advantage could make the difference in the outcome.
“These guys know they see Madison Square Garden on TV. You get these opportunities, opportunities come and you’ve got to take advantage of them,” Pikiell emphasized. “So hopefully, we’ll have the place red and packed. That’s what we need more than anything.”
I chose “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We need some positive Jersey vibes at the Garden and he’s played some epic shows there. On paper, Rutgers is better than Michigan State. RU is No. 17 in KenPom and MSU is No. 42. However, it doesn’t mean a thing on the big stage and bright lights tomorrow. The Spartans outplayed the Scarlet Knights a few weeks ago. Saturday is a chance to get even and balance things out.
If Rutgers can dictate the terms of the game with relentless defense without fouling, share the basketball and be connected on both ends of the floor, they will win. Easier said then done but this is an important game in the context of the Big Ten. This team has risen to the occasion often this season and this is an opportunity to prove they belong in the top four of the league. No surrender and keep grinding it out their way.
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