Where: Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ
When: 7:00 p.m., EST, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021
TV/Radio: FS1/Spartan Sports Radio
Rutgers (8-6, 4-6): No. 40 (Kenpom)
1 - Geo Baker (6’4” sr), Jacob Young (6’2” sr)
2 - Paul Mulcahy (6’6” so)
3 - Ron Harper Jr. (6’6” jr), Montez Mathis (6’4” jr)
4 - Caleb McConnell (6’7” jr)
5 - Myles Johnson (6’11” jr), Cliff Omoruyi (6’11” fr)
After getting drilled by the Michigan State Spartans the first time around, Rutgers endured another three consecutive losses, bringing its mid-season losing streak to five games. But things finally turned around in the Scarlet Knights’ last game against the Indiana Hoosiers. Rutgers remains basically the same team — it does not run a ton of complex offense, pounds the paint, relies on Harper and Baker to take and make tough shots, and plays very solid man-to-man defense.
But in the last few games, head coach Steve Pikiell has adjusted the rotation a bit, and against Indiana he started an entirely new five-man unit putting Mulcahy and McConnell into the starting group, and putting Young and Mathis on the bench. It will be interesting to see if that group starts for a second consecutive game against the Spartans, but it does a couple of useful things for Rutgers: it puts the low-efficiency Young and the relatively high-usage Mathis on the bench. These two shifts make the starting group bigger, raise the basketball IQ level, and add two guys who are lower-usage ball-movers.
While Mathis barely played against Indiana, I expect him to play more off the bench along with Young when Harper and Baker rest, and to enter the lineup and resume their higher usage roles if Baker and Harper continue to play such heavy minutes.
The other sizable change to the rotation is the now-healthy Cliff Omoruyi. While he is by no means an offensive dynamo, he is big, long, active, and can and will make plays on both ends of the court. Getting him back also gives Johnson more of a chance to rest when he gets tired and means that he can play freely without as much fear of picking up fouls if he has to. Johnson has been terrific in the last few games, and I expect a far more impactful showing from him than his first outing against the Spartans.
Fundamentally, this team still boils down to Harper Jr. and Baker making shots, and everyone else filling in their roles solidly. Stop those two, and Rutgers is in trouble.
The lineup shift really helped, but Johnson and Omoruyi really won this game by keeping a lid on Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Ron Harper Jr. (6’6” junior forward) remains Rutgers’ most important player; currently averaging 18 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Send him to the line, where he is only shooting 64 percent. Do not leave him open from three-point range (40 percent), stay in his air-space in the half court, and attack him relentlessly when he is on defense. If you want a reminder on Harper and how the Spartans should look to defend him, check out Zach Smith’s article on how to effectively guard Harper from before the first matchup.
Geo Baker (6’4” senior guard), averaging just about 10 points, three assists, one steal, and three rebounds per game. Baker had a breakout game against Indiana, scoring 19 points and drilling crucial three-point shots — stay attached to him.
Jacob Young (6’2” senior guard), averaging about 14 points, four assists, two steals, and two rebounds per game. Young has been more quiet in Rutgers’ last two games, but he remains a pest defending the point of attack, and will drive the ball relentlessly.
Myles Johnson (6’11” senior center) and Cliff Omoruyi (6’11” freshman center), combine for around 13 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks-plus-steals per game. Neither guy can shoot from range, and neither guy can shoot from the free-throw line. Defend them hard, and foul them hard when necessary. No three-point play opportunities.
In the first matchup, Thomas Kithier and Malik Hall combined to cause Ron Harper Jr. all kinds of problems. I expect the staff will hope that duo can replicate their first performance. The first game between these two squads also saw Myles Johnson, Paul Mulcahy, and, particularly, Jacob Young shoot Rutgers out of the game with shockingly inefficient nights. I expect all of those guys to shoot less often and to make more of the shots they do take.
While the center position held up well in the last outing against Rutgers, and performed admirably in the first half against Purdue, that position group will need to step its play up yet another level, even after the layoff, if the team is going to hope to overcome their likely lack of sharpness. The other essential component to the “lack-of-sharpness” will be turnovers. The team has generally been solid with the ball this season, but with the season beginning anew, there is a potential for a high turnover outing against a stout defensive group. If that happens then this will not be a successful road trip.
Limit turnovers, defend solidly and end defensive possessions with rebounds, run like the wind in transition, and win the battle of the free-throw line.
Everything in my bones says that Michigan State will lose this game. The long layoff, Rutgers finding themselves a bit against Indiana, a road-trip, missing Gabe Brown and only getting a cameo from Josh Langford (at best), and maybe not any minutes from Mady Sissoko, the Spartans will need a number of guys to step up in ways they have failed to consistently manage this season. And yet...I feel that they will. Aaron Henry should have another great game, AJ Hoggard will hold his own, and Joey Hauser will really have a great shooting night after the layoff has given his lower-body injuries time to get better.
MSU 76 Rutgers 68