The last time Michigan State played Rutgers on the road, the outcome was scary. Only 37 points were put on the board in their first game back from a COVID pause. Surely not many details can be recalled from that game by Spartans fans. And surely when they rolled into the newly named Jersey Mikes Arena Saturday afternoon, MSU would have better luck right?
In college basketball, it’s difficult to win games when your opponent shoots 62% from the field, and you only have six free throw attempts to show for in the box score. That is what Tom Izzo’s team did, and as a result, Michigan State loses to the Scarlet Knights by 21 points.
It’s only their 5th blunder of the season, but the timing and the fashion in which it happened, is what hurts the most. The Spartans are 3-3 in their last 6 games, and are slipping down the Big Ten standings. Head coach Steve Pikiell has turned Rutgers into a respectable program and it shows as MSU hasn’t won at the RAC since 2018. With Purdue and Wisconsin both picking up wins this weekend, this team has to quickly shake out of this slump.
The calendar has turned to February, which means the competition is ramping up. If the season were to end today, Michigan State would not be ready for the tournament. Quite frankly, with the way they are playing, they aren’t even ready for their next game. What happened between now and three weeks ago when MSU was in the midst of a nine game win streak? Why have they gone from inconsistent to completely flat?
Needless to say, Tom Izzo has a lot to figure out before the all important month of March.
The Good News
Usually the bad news should come first, but unfortunately there was more bad than good in this contest. The obvious bright spot was Gabe Brown.
The senior said earlier this week that his shot was flat and he had been working on fixing it in practice. Shooting just 32% from the field in his last four outings combined, Brown was definitely in a funk. Against Rutgers, Brown played the most minutes (35), made the most shots (7/9 FG, 6/7 3PT), grabbed the most rebounds (5), and scored the most points (20). The majority of the team captains production came from behind the three point line, but at the rate Michigan State was scoring, no one was going to complain about his shot selection.
It was important Gabe Brown saw the ball hit the twine in this game. There could be some correlation that the Spartans toughest stretch of the season happened alongside the slump of one of their leaders. Although it came at the cost of an embarrassment, at least one player can fly back to East Lansing with some confidence.
The next highest scorer for MSU on Saturday was Marcus Bingham Jr. The big man may have scored a modest 12 points, but he logged the most minutes since he came down with COVID-19. It was apparent the virus took a toll on his conditioning, thus the decrease in playing time, but that issue seems to have shored up. Although he still insists on shooting questionable 3-pointers, Bingham Jr. is an integral part of this team. The more he can stay on the floor, the better.
The Bad News
Rutgers beat Michigan State at their own game in this one. The Scarlett Knights recorded 11 fast break points while the Spartans put up a goose egg. Points in the paint were a luxury for the home team (38 for Rutgers) and a rarity for the road team (16 for MSU). As a result, the Spartans had to settle for a lot of outside shots (11/24 3PT), and failed to get to the charity stripe (6/6 FT). Also in typical fashion, they turned the ball over 13 times.
Tom Izzo’s squad thrives off of having depth and a roster filled with players of different skill types. That isn’t what the box score says however. MSU had just two players in double digit scoring, while Rutgers had all five of their starters and their six man score above ten points. Gabe Brown was really the only Spartan that showed up today. Max Christie finally was brave enough to shoot his fair share of shots, but was ice cold most of the afternoon. Neither point guard was able to get anything going as well. Tyson Walker got into early foul trouble, and in his limited minutes was very passive. AJ Hoggard took the bulk of the workload and was indecisive as well.
With their lack of one premiere, star player, Michigan State has to win games through team chemistry and intense effort for the entirety of games. In this recent stretch they have done neither, and consequently gone from inconsistent to completely flat. With it being the dog days of the Big Ten schedule, MSU won’t have much time to adjust as they host Wisconsin on Tuesday night.
The Big Picture
The Big Ten conference is the toughest and most competitive in all of college basketball. Purdue and Wisconsin are rolling while Illinois and Indiana are overachieving. There is little room for error. A championship is only awarded to the toughest and most versatile group.
Right now, Michigan State isn’t close to being either one of those things, and looks like the middle of the pack team they were projected to be.
After being down just 2 points to Rutgers at halftime, Michigan State was outscored by 19 points in the second half of their 84-63 loss. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
If you think about it, there isn’t one thing they do really well. It used to be running the floor, but opponents have adapted. Their three point shooting was pretty decent in non-conference play, but has since rescinded. MSU has no identity, and that is the last thing a team needs at this point of the year.
The harsh reality is the opposition has figured out how to handle the Spartans. Turnovers are the kryptonite, and shutting down their key contributors is the kill shot.
How Tom Izzo fixes this team is beyond anyone outside of the program. For all we know, they could shake this loss off, have a good showing against Wisconsin, and make us all forget about this embarrassment. The big picture is Michigan State needs to treat the rest of their schedule as if it is March Madness. A sense of urgency might just help them play a full 40 minutes. Otherwise, if more duds like the one they produced today are in their future, an early exit from the big dance may be as well.
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