On Friday, coach Tom Izzo said he wanted the Spartan defense to play better. After suffering negative performances in both free throw shooting and rebounding against Duke on Dec. 3, Izzo wanted to see a change.
And Sunday night in the Spartans' 77-65 win over Rutgers, he saw just that. In fact, defensive toughness and free throw perfection was essentially what saved the Spartans from falling to the Scarlet Knights for the first time in history.
“We did improve in those two areas, so the old adage what you work on, what you emphasize is what you usually get better at,” Izzo said. “I just got a lot to emphasize because we kind of missed out on a month in a lot of different ways either situation or just the way that schedule went.”
Twenty nine percent of the Spartan’s 77 points came from free throw buckets. The Spartans needed this consistency too, as it saved them from yet another lacking night from the perimeter, making just 33.3% from behind the three-point line.
Sophomore Gabe Brown, who made his second career start Sunday night in place of injured freshman Rocket Watts, went a perfect eight for eight from the line. Brown led the Spartans to their third best free throw performance of the season, drilling 81.5% through the hoop as a team.
The 6-foot-7 forward attributed the free throw improvement to shootaround practices throughout the week, initiated by senior guard Cassius Winston, junior forward Xavier Tillman and even the injured senior guard Joshua Langford, amongst other team leaders.
“They all tell us to come in at night and shoot and as a team, (and) the other night we came in and shot as a team. We called it and we came in and shot, everybody shot good from the line,” Brown said. “Sometimes we aren’t locked in at the line, we might be focused on other things, so for us to come in through the course of the week and really be locked in on the free throws, it was good for us tonight.”
On the boards, the Spartans took 40 rebounds, and stopped a strong rebounding Rutgers team, who ranks 25th nationally in rebounding margin at +8.6, to just 32.
“Definitely that was our main focus was to get them (Rutgers) off the offensive glass because their really good offensive rebounding team," Tillman said. "Then we were able to run in transition ... the best thing that we have is our running game, so in that case we just wanted to get out and run.”
The green and white put on their best defensive rebounding performance since Charleston Southern on Oct. 18. Tillman, the 6-foot- 8 Spartan big, was hungry for possession and led the team with nine defensive rebounds amongst a block and a steal.
Izzo noted that rebounding and running was one key to Sunday's matchup and he saw his team running “as good as we’ve ever run in the first 10 minutes.”
“We got to get back to the basics,” Izzo said. “We got back to the basics on the rebounding.”
Michigan State snatched eight steals, good for their second best performance all season and gave them a certain level of toughness that was missing from this Spartan squad in past matchups.
This toughness led to 15 fast break points and 11 second chance points that ultimately put the Spartans on top to close out their season opener of Big Ten play in a game that wasn't perfect, but did show improvement on the Spartans' end.
“We got a lot of work to do," Izzo said. "We’re nowhere near our finished product but I think we will get better.”