The Spartans are off to a quick 2-0 start in Big Ten conference play thanks in large part to the emergence of two true freshmen — Cassius Winston and Nick Ward.
They’ll look to push their conference record to 3-0 when they take on the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, Wednesday (6:30 EST, BTN).
That may not sound exhilarating, but it’s must-see-TV for Michigan State fans for one reason in particular: Miles Bridges is finally back from his ankle injury. He’s supposed to see limited minutes off the bench, but it sure will be nice to have him back in the lineup, regardless. Considering all the growth we have seen amongst guys like Winston, Ward, Tum Tum, and Alvin Ellis, adding Bridges back into the lineup can only mean good things for MSU’s long term outlook.
After a less than satisfying year for Rutgers basketball in the 2015-16 season, they hired a whole new coaching staff led by Head Coach Steve Pikiell. While last year this team went 7-25 with Eddie Jordan at the helm so far this year they are 11-3. Whats caused such a dramatic change?
Steve Pikiell has come in and completely changed the culture for the better. This team is in far better condition and far more prepared for the rigors of Big Ten play then they ever were under Eddie Jordan as coach. He has smartly made defense and rebounding points of emphasis with this team and they've improved greatly in both areas. He also brought in some intriguing freshman and transfers that have upgraded the depth and talent level of this team. However, the program needs to make a big jump long term in terms of overall talent and Pikiell has been relentless on the recruiting trail.
He already landed a solid 3-star combo guard in Geo Baker for 2017 and 4-star big man Mamadou Doucoure from NYC for the class of 2018. If recruiting continues to trend upward, I have high hopes for the future. Pikiell has proven early on to be a very good coach, both with upgrading their preparedness and with in-game adjustments. He is a proven program builder who doesn't seem phased about the work that needs to be done to improve this program long term. I'm not sure what his ceiling is yet at Rutgers, but I think this team is certainly moving in the right direction under Pikiell.
Rutgers went 1-17 in Big Ten play and finished last in the conference the previous season, where do you see this years Rutgers team ending up?
The Penn State loss was a big setback for this team, mostly because of the way they played on the offensive end. They're averaging 50 points in Big Ten play and that will not lead to many positive results if that continues. I predicted 4 conference wins before the season and while that is still possible, I'm worried it could be much less now. Penn State was arguably their best chance for a win this season at home and they couldn't take advantage. They'll be the underdog in every remaining conference game, but I do have some hope based on their defensive effort of late that they'll pick up a few wins. I think 3 wins is my final answer, hopefully.
Who is one player Michigan State fans need to look out for during the game?
Mike Williams has been the most improved player this season and the best player on the team for Rutgers. He is shooting the most efficiently that he has his entire career and has made countless big baskets already this year. He has upped his scoring in Big Ten play, as he has averaged 18 points through two games. However, Williams also does a lot of the little things that don't show up in the box score and is an excellent rebounding guard. He has been the heart and soul of this team and will make sure this team fights until the end, regardless of the score.
Miles Bridges is going to be inserted back into the lineup for the Spartans Wednesday night, although he is supposed to be on a "snap count" so to speak. Does this change Rutgers gameplan or strategy coming into the game? If so, in what way?
It certainly doesn't help their chances, but I don't think it changes the way they need to play to win. Rutgers will look to run as much as possible and play fundamentally sound defense in the halfcourt. Transition defense was an issue against Penn State, who play a much faster pace than Michigan State. While the Spartans will be tough to defend in the halfcourt, Rutgers was able to give teams like Seton Hall and Wisconsin trouble in spurts. Bridges will be the most talented player on the floor, but Rutgers also needs to be careful in defending the perimeter as well. Expect Rutgers to use multiple big men to defend Bridges in an attempt to wear him down physically. I don't think that will necessarily work, but it's the best option they have. Candido Sa is the best shot blocker and rim defender Rutgers has and will probably play Bridges a good amount.
It's early in the year but thus far Rutgers have lost their first two Big Ten games to start the conference schedule, they now head on the road at the Breslin Center to try and take down Michigan State who is surprisingly hot to start. What would your advice be to the team following this short losing streak to start conference play?
Rutgers has proven to be far improved on the defensive end and they'll need their most focused and consistent effort of the season against Michigan State. They cannot afford any lulls on defense or the Spartans could rattle off a quick run that puts them out of reach in a snap. Rutgers simply doesn't have the offensive firepower to come back by double digits against this talented of a team.
On offense, they need to attack the rim and not settle for long jumpers like they did in their loss to Penn State. They'll need to work the ball into the interior and force the action inside. If they start chucking it from behind the arc early and often, they haven't come close to being efficient enough this season to win that way and it could put the game out of reach in the first 10 minutes. I do think they'll be more focused and play smarter on offense, but it will still be a major challenge for them to score enough to win this game.
What is something you feel Rutgers must do to win late in the game?
The best chance Rutgers has to make this a game is to be proficient on the offensive glass and take advantage with second chance points. Rutgers is not a good shooting team and the majority of their offense has come in the interior after initial missed shots. If they can't be effective in this area, it will be a long night for Rutgers. They simply lack playmakers and elite scorers to create much offense on their own.
Prediction Time. What is your final score and why?
I think this is a very difficult matchup for Rutgers, both from a talent perspective and a physicality standpoint. Also, Rutgers hasn't faced a team yet with as many three-point shooting threats as Michigan State has, which could spell big trouble in this game. I think you will see an improved team on the defensive end and Rutgers will keep fighting, but it's going to be a struggle on the offensive end. I see Michigan State winning 75-57.
Thank you to Aaron and everyone over at On the Banks!