Happy 2017! January may be the beginning of a new calendar year, but it’s already the heart of the College Basketball season.
Michigan State ended 2016 on a much-needed hot streak, taking down two opponents who look poised to be at least bubble teams come March. That includes Minnesota who went into West Lafayette and beat then-15th-ranked Purdue in OT, just days after losing at home to the Spartans.
Not only are they hot, but they’re about to welcome Miles Bridges back into the fold. The freshman star will be playing his first game since the Spartans traveled to Duke at the end of November, as he finally returns from a nagging high ankle sprain.
Tonight, they face another team that looks markedly improved over a year ago in Rutgers. Can MSU start off the new year the same way they ended the last one? They’d better, but let’s take a look at what it’ll take.
- Record: 11-4 (0-2 Conference / 2-3 Road)
- Best Win: @ DePaul (RPI: 213), 66-59
- Worst Loss: vs Penn State (RPI: 68), 61-72
Last Five Games
- 1/1 — vs Penn State, L 47-60
- 12/27 — @ Wisconsin, L 52-72
- 12/23 — @ Seton Hall, L 61-72
- 12/17 — vs Fordham, W 68-53
- 12/14 — vs Fairleigh Dicksinson, W 82-69
Rutgers has never been known as basketball royalty, but last season was brutal, even for their standards. The Scarlet Knights went a Sixers-esque 7-25, winning exactly one (ONE!) Big Ten game — and that came against 8-win Minnesota. Unsurprisingly, Head Coach Eddie Jordan was fired the day after the season ended.
They are, however, doing everything they can to become relevant. They hired Steve Pikiell, who led Stony Brook to six postseason appearances in the last seven years, to replace Jordan and the team has already surpassed last year’s win total by four games.
Some quick historical context on their futility: If they can go just 5-11 the rest of the way, they’ll be the winningest Rutgers team since the 2005-06 season, when they finished 19-14. So pardon Rutgers fans for getting a little too excited about wins over Drexel and Hartford but they haven’t seen a team get off to a start like this in over a decade.
They’ve have hit a rough patch, however, losing their last three as the competition has stepped up a notch. Their latest loss to Penn State was their worst RPI-wise on the season but the Nittany Lions still rank in the top 70. Basically, when they’ve played bad teams (most of the time) they’ve won, and when they’ve played decent-to-good teams (not often) they’ve lost. For a team that hasn’t finished above 7th in their conference since 2001-02, you can’t ask for much more.
Needless to say, a win at Michigan State would be the biggest in quite some time for this program.
Scarlet Knights To Know
Normally, we do bullet points for this section, but Rutgers basically goes four-deep.
As you can see, this quartet does most of the heavy lifting. All of them average at least 25 minutes and 10 points per game.
Corey Sanders — who was benched for the start of their game against Wisconsin after missing a team flight and in turn practice — was easily the best player on last year’s team, but has seen his scoring average drop from 15.9 to 10.2 mostly due to Johnson’s arrival and subsequent chucking. He’s also made only three triples all season after making 41 a year ago. He’s still the best option they have despite his struggles, so far.
The other guards, 6’2” Mike Williams and 6’1” Nigel Johnson, have contrasting styles but are capable of putting up some solid numbers. Johnson, a Kansas St transfer, is a chucker in every way. He hasn’t taken fewer than 8 shots in a game all season despite only shooting 40% or better from the field 5 times in 15 games. Williams, on the other hand, is shooting nearly 47% from the field, and leading the team in scoring despite only taking double-digit shots on four occasions.
Deshawn Freeman is the Rutgers version of Miles Bridges. A versatile 6’7” forward who scores efficiently around the rim and mans up on the boards. One major difference, is he cannot, nay, will not shoot from deep, having attempted (and missed) three total three’s to this point in his career.
Two other big men, 7’0” CJ Gettys and 6’9” Candido Sa, combine for about 10 points and 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game, but that’s about it when it comes to relevant depth; No one else on the roster averages more than 5 points, 3 boards or 1.5 assists.
One trend you may have noticed is that this team cannot shoot three’s. Like, at all. Only Williams shoots over 32% from deep and only six players have even made a three this season. Expect the MSU guards to give everyone, save Williams and maybe Sanders (based solely on reputation) the “Tum Tum Treatment” — a trademark we may end up retiring almost immediately — and leave them wide open until they prove they can sink some shots. Johnson, who has gone 0-fer from deep six times already this year, is a prime candidate.
How Does MSU Match Up?
This is where we finally get to talk about Bridges. The 6’7” forward’s return has enormous ramifications on both ends of the floor. He essentially becomes the team’s second big man, alongside Nick Ward, and presumably replaces Matt Van Dyk and Kyle Ahrens in the playing rotation. The upgrade from walk-on and marginal rotation player to one of the most explosive athletes in the nation is bonkers. A reminder of who we’re talking about...
Ok, one more.
Sorry, Matt and Kyle, but it’s probably time you found your way back to the pine.
Offensively, Bridges’ ability to create his own shot when the offense breaks down gives the Spartans a dimension they currently lack, as does his work on the offensive glass. More importantly, he gives MSU another confident scorer to go with Ward and — I can’t believe I’m writing this — Alvin Ellis III. As we’ve harped on so many times on this site, if Eron Harris hadn’t gotten lost somewhere in the upside-down, he would be filling this role. But he hasn’t been rescued yet, making Miles’ return all the more critical.
Defensively, he finally gives Michigan State someone who can check legitimate combo forwards. The Ellis’, Ahrens’, Van Dyks’ and Kenny Goins’ of the world had been doing what they could, but you saw what happened against Northeastern when they faced a legit stretch-four. It’s not even their fault, none of them were brought in to do that, but Bridges is simply a different animal. That defense will prove especially important tonight against 6’7” Deshawn Freeman, who isn’t a great shooter but is averaging nearly a double-double.
Finally, there’s the weakside shot blocking. Ward has already proven to be a much more skilled shot blocker than anticipated, which makes adding an athlete of Bridges’ caliber to the mix really exciting. Now, MSU has two guys that make you hesitant to drive against because you know what’s lurking in the paint. For a team that has irreversible size-related flaws the fact they can marginalize them in any capacity is big.
Last year, the matchups between these teams were, how do you say, one-sided, with the Spartans winning both games by a combined score of 193-128. Yikes. Too much has changed on both sides of the equation to predict a blowout of that magnitude but this is a game Michigan State should win by a comfortable margin.
Rutgers has skilled guards and is improved all-around, while Izzo’s team will face some growing pains reintegrating Bridges offensively, but these two clubs are trending in different directions and the skill disparity is still significant.
Miles flirts with a double-double in his return and MSU remains undefeated in Big Ten play.