Know Thy Enemy: MSU meets Rutgers after close December battle
The men's hoops team lost its No. 1 ranking after getting blown out by Ohio State University in Columbus on Sunday, so the team will look to avoid consecutive conference losses when it welcomes the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to the Breslin Center this Wednesday.
The Scarlet Knights (11-6, 1-3 Big Ten) were able to keep the two teams' first meeting back on Dec. 5 competitive throughout. The 10-point win was the smallest margin of victory for MSU this season.
Despite their struggles in conference play so far, Rutgers was able to make the Spartans sweat more than most opponents have, as MSU was held to a 38.6 percent overall shooting percentage in the teams' first meeting this season.
The State News caught up with Griffin Whitmer, associate sports editor for The Daily Targum, Rutgers' student publication, via email and asked him if he thinks the Scarlet Knights can have a repeat performance.
Here's what he had to say:
Q: MSU won the first matchup this season between these two teams but the Scarlet Knights pushed the Spartans as it was the smallest margin of victory for MSU all season. Before that matchup Rutgers went 6-2, after the matchup they went 5-3, including wins over No. 13 Seton Hall and Wisconsin. So would you say the team has played better since its battle against the Spartans back on Dec. 5?
A: It's really been a mixed bag and the schedule before the Michigan State game was very soft. The win over Seton Hall was the biggest win for this program in a long time, considering it's an in-state rivalry that they have not done well in. Rutgers then had its worst 3-game stretch in the Steve Pikiell era, losing at home to his old school Stony Brook on a buzzer beater (the Knights were up by 5 with 17 seconds left), losing the next game at home to Hartford (who was ranked 322/351 Division I teams on KenPom at the time of the game) and then getting blown out on the road against Purdue by 31 points, its largest margin of defeat under Pikiell. Those three games were simply awful and there is no excuse for Rutgers to play the way it did.
But after that, the Knights beat Wisconsin and it was no fluke. They simply out-played the Badgers from beginning to end and assistant coach Jay Young put together a masterful plan to contain Ethan Happ. I think if anything, the game against Michigan State helped the team realize it has the potential to play with any team in the country at the RAC and we saw that against Seton Hall and Wisconsin. With that being said, due to some of the young pieces Rutgers has, its best basketball of the season has yet to be played.
Q: The Scarlet Knights have three players averaging in double figures in scoring, but junior guard Corey Sanders is a name that really stands out, and that has pretty much stood out the most since he's been with the program. His numbers across the board are up from last season, so how would you assess his play thus far and how could he hurt the Spartans?
A: In the two big wins over Seton Hall and Wisconsin, Sanders was the best player on the floor. His ability to take over games is what sets him apart from the other players on the team. He tied the game and then gave the Knights the lead for good against the Pirates while also scoring six straight points to ice the win over the Badgers, highlighted by an NBA-range 3-pointer over Ethan Happ to seal the deal. He has always been a good scorer, but has really improved his defense and rebounding under Pikiell. He is really good on the defensive end when he puts in the maximum effort and shut down Seton Hall's Khadeen Carrington late in the game to help secure the win.
I think his biggest value against the Spartans will be just that. If he can force Cassius Winston into turnovers and thus keep Michigan State out of an offensive rhythm, he will give Rutgers a shot to be competitive. Rutgers' DNA starts and ends with defense and the team always seems to play its best basketball when Sanders plays defense and is a fearless rebounder.
Q: Rutgers was able to keep the previous meeting with MSU closely contested throughout even with their top three scorers struggling on offense. They would obviously need to play better this time around in order for the Scarlet Knights to knock off the Spartans, but is that it? What else does the team need to do or what other players need to perform for Rutgers to pull this one out?
A: If Rutgers was able to shoot the ball at a slightly above-average mark, it would be an NCAA Tournament team. In their win against Seton Hall, the Knights shot 34.3 percent from the field. They shot 25.8 percent their last time out against Michigan State and had a chance to win the game. It's crazy when you think about it, but their defense is good enough that they just need to figure out how to make simple shots and be an average shooting team.
Right now, the Spartans lead the entire country in field goal percentage (52.5 percent) and were just 38.6 percent against Rutgers. The NCAA average for field goal percentage is right around 45 percent while the Knights rank 308/351 with 41.5 percent. They don't turn the ball over on offense, are one of the best rebounding teams in the country and play some of the best defense in the Big Ten. All that's missing is shot-making. If Rutgers gets hot, especially from behind the three-point line, they can beat anyone in the country, and I mean anyone. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case this year. If they want to upset Michigan State, they'll need to play one of their better defensive games of the season but also shoot around 55 percent from the field and above 50 percent from deep.
Q: Score prediction and why:
A: Despite already having two true Big Ten road games under its belt, I'm still not sold on Rutgers as a road team, as the team has looked really bad in both, losing by 22 and 31 points, respectively. I think Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the country and will have his team ready after a letdown at Ohio State. I think Michigan State wins easily, 83-64.