For about the first five minutes of Michigan State’s 70-57 victory over Rutgers at the Breslin Center, it looked as though the visitors were going to run the home team out of their own building.
The Scarlet Knights were dominating on both ends of the court. Defensively, they didn’t give any easy looks to the Spartans, applying plenty of pressure and offensively, the visitors were bullying the opposing defense, scoring around the basket and beyond the arch. Rutgers leapt to a 14-5 lead, and MSU looked lost on both sides of the ball
Then, Michigan State’s defense settled down. The defenders battened down the hatches and stifled a few Rutgers offensive possessions.
It took a bit longer for the offense to catch up. But finally, a triple from senior guard Tyson Walker and a solid six-point stretch from freshman forward Jaxon Kohler got things going. At around the midway point of the first half, Michigan State took its first lead of the game.
“We rally off each other,” junior guard A.J. Hoggard said. “We feed off of stops.”
As the half progressed, MSU’s defense stayed strong, and the offense started to really catch up and get comfortable. When the buzzer sounded at the half, Michigan State found itself with a 36-30 lead.
Those stagnant offensive stretches found throughout the first still occurred at times in the second half. Rutgers kept hanging around, waiting for the opportunity to strike back and regain the lead.
However, Michigan State’s defenders never re-opened the door for their opponents. In fact, the Scarlet Knights trailed for the entirety of the second half. Each time MSU’s offense slowed up, the defense protected the lead and kept Rutgers from going on a run.
“Especially when the shots are not going - we’ve gotten off to a few slow starts lately, that’s just being totally honest about it - it’s our defense that definitely gets us rallied back into games,” Hoggard said.
Finally, with about five minutes left in the game, the Spartans’ offense took off and the wheels flew off for the visitors. MSU walked away with a 13-point victory in what had been a dogfight all evening.
The final stats for the night were telling. Rutgers finished with a paltry 34% field goal shooting and a meager 12% from three. MSU recorded nine steals, forcing 11 turnovers in total.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Michigan State’s defense has been quite solid this year. The defense from the starting trio of guards - Walker, Hoggard and sophomore Jaden Akins - has been downright elite.
Walker and Akins finished with four steals a piece against Rutgers, both causing havoc around the perimeter all evening. Hoggard continued to show his defensive versatility, guarding around the perimeter and within the arch.
“I’ve had some tandem guards that have been really, really good defensively, but I think these three guys could be the best,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said.
Michigan State’s offense has been choppy at points throughout the season. More recently, the Spartans have started each game a step too slow, letting their opponents leap to quick leads. Although it’s not always the best recipe for success, MSU’s defense has often kept the team from derailing completely when the offense has struggled. And the trio of Akins, Hoggard and Walker are a key piece of that defense.
“Defense can win you games, even if your offense isn’t going,” Akins said. “It’s really important that we continue to build that up.”
The conference slate isn’t getting any easier. The Big Ten is frighteningly deep. The Spartans have road games against some of the better teams in the conference in the coming weeks, including Purdue and Rutgers. If Michigan State still has its eyes on the Big Ten title, or some friendly seeding come March, that defense will have to stay stout.
“As the old saying goes ‘defense wins championships’, so that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to win championships,” Hoggard said.