EAST LANSING — Michigan State continues their road trip after losing to Louisville in overtime, 82-78 in a game they probably should have won. The Spartans are now 8-11 in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, beating Notre Dame in 2017 and Louisville in 2015 (MSU is also 0-3 against Louisville on the road).
The Spartans now travel to Rutgers Athletic Center to take on the Scarlet Knights in a Friday night showdown.
What are your initial thoughts and predictions as it pertains to this season?
This team is a year away from making a significant jump, but it’s a group that should be fun to watch develop as the season progresses. Before the season I predicted 14-16 overall and 7-13 in the Big Ten, which would be more conference wins than Rutgers has ever produced. The four key returnees in Geo Baker, Eugene Omoruyi, Issa Thiam, and Shaq Doorson have all been great to start the season, but the first four players off the bench are all freshman. They bring an obvious upgrade in talent, but there will likely be plenty of good, bad, and ugly performances as this group gains more experience.
I am surprised how well this team is playing together so quickly and the defense has rapidly improved since the loss to St. John’s. I think hovering around .500 is still probably the most realistic expectation, but the win against Miami showed Rutgers can beat a good team despite not having a great shooting night in their own right. Once Rutgers adds true point guard in 3-star commit Paul Mulcahy, who is already signed for next season, Rutgers will have a true playmaker running the offense and Baker will be even more dangerous off the ball. That should help make the offense more dynamic and balanced than now, raising the ceiling for Rutgers. For this season, I worry about Baker wearing down as Big Ten opponents focus on stopping him every game.
The Knights finished last year 15-19, 3-15 in Big Ten play to end their season in last place. However, they did defeat Minnesota and Indiana before losing to Purdue in the semifinals. What needs to happen for Rutgers to improve their record this season?
Three-point shooting has been the achilles heel for Rutgers in Big Ten play since they joined the league. It’s been a huge disadvantage in not being able to keep up with opponents from behind the arc. They were so bad last year (29% as a team) that Pikiell limited their attempts to about 10-15 per game. This season, there are multiple players who can connect from deep and Rutgers currently has four players shooting 41% or better from behind the arc: Geo Baker (16-34), Issa Thiam (13-31), Peter Kiss (10-24), and Eugene Omoruyi (9-17). In addition, two freshman, Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis, have made a few of their own despite struggling from deep so far and have the potential to do better long term. As a team, they are shooting 38% from three-point range and averaging 9 makes per game. If they can keep this up, it will make a major difference in their competitiveness in league play this season.
The defense has gone from bad to suffocating in the span of two weeks and Rutgers currently has the 10th best adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the country. I doubt they can keep that up, but a top half of the conference defense would be huge for this team.
Aside from those two areas, they need contributions from their top eight players on a pretty consistent basis. While the talent has improved, more development and experience is needed. This team is toughest to beat when it’s getting production from everyone. Miami was a perfect example as only three players scored in double figures, but they got key contributions overall from seven players. Starting center Shaq Doorson scored just 1 point, but led the team with 10 rebounds. Issa Thiam had an off shooting night, but still posted 7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. The freshman duo of Harper Jr. and Mathis combined for 10 key points. It can’t just be Baker and Omoruyi night in and night out, so a third scorer like Peter Kiss (12 points, 2-6 from three) makes this team that much better. The more balanced this team is, the harder they will be to beat.
Where is the fanbase at with Steve Pikiell? Is he the future of this program? Can he complete their rebuild in a positive light?
Pikiell has made believers out of many fans since his first season and that faith has only grown since. He has bred confidence from his experience in making perennial doormat Stony Brook into a three-time conference champion, as well as his approach in rebuilding Rutgers. From recruiting, to game management, to promoting the program and connecting with fans, Pikiell has done as much right as could have been hoped for so far.
He inherited a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and had a winning season since 2006, so it’s been a long time since Rutgers fans had real hope. Pikiell has brought that and he has embraced the school and community in every way. While landing elite recruits hasn’t happened yet, Pikiell has methodically rebuilt the roster to where there is more depth and talent than in a long time. There is only one senior on the roster, so having this core group for next season along with point guard of the future Paul Mulcahy and Texas transfer Jacob Young has people very excited for the future, rightfully so.
Who are some exciting players MSU fans should keep an eye on?
Geo Baker does it all and is the key guy for Michigan State to target. He runs the offense and is able to create his own shot off the dribble. Eugene Omoruyi is the best frontcourt
player and has three double-doubles this season. Issa Thiam is a 6’10 wiry wing who is becoming a true complete player, while 7-footer Shaq Doorson is now a true rim defender and rebounding threat ( top 100 block rate and offensive rebounding rate in DI). Peter Kiss is a transfer from Quinnipiac who is the fifth starter that be hot and cold on offense, so something to watch for with him.
Off the bench the primary three guys are all freshman. Ron Harper Jr. is the son of five time NBA champion Ron Harper, is smooth and athletic on the wing. Montez Mathis was a consensus 4-Star recruit who is still getting comfortable but can attack the rim with a vengeance, he just needs to relax more and finish more consistently. Myles Johnson is 6’10”, has great hands and is considered the best passer on the team. It’s a far more interesting and most diversely skilled team that Rutgers has had since joining the Big Ten.
What are three keys to victory for Rutgers?
Win the turnover battle, defend Michigan State well from three-point range/don’t give any open looks, and they need a total team effort on both ends of the floor like they got against Miami to pull off the upset.
Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?
Rutgers played Michigan State very tough twice last season and the RAC is a sellout for this matchup on Friday night. If Rutgers can come out with the same energy and defensive effort as they did Wednesday against Miami, plus make a few three-pointers, this could be a battle to the buzzer. I do think the Spartans coming off a loss and one more day rest could be the difference in the end, in addition to the talent gap. I think Rutgers plays well but wears out down the stretch, falling to MSU 67-59.