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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Rutgers Preview

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info:

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan

When: 9:00pm EST, Jan. 5, 2021

TV/Radio: ESPN 2/Spartan Sports Network radio

Rutgers (7-2, 3-2): No. 20 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Jacob Young (6’2” sr)
2 - Geo Baker (6’4” sr)
3 - Montez Mathis (6’4” jr), Paul Mulcahy (6’6” so)
4 - Ron Harper Jr. (6’6” jr)
5 - Myles Johnson (6’11” jr), Mamadou Doucoure (6’9” jr), Dean Reiber (6’10” fr)

**Note: Cliff Omoruyi (6’11” fr) has been out with a knee sprain after starting the first six games of the season — if healthy he will play all of the center minutes that Johnson does not take.


Rutgers’ defense is stout, but it is the Scarlet Knights’ offensive efficiency that has been on a meteoric rise over the last few seasons that has turned this squad into a real threat in the conference. Their lack of depth has to be a concern, but if they can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, then Rutgers can absolutely win games in the NCAA tournament.

Rutgers’ offense relies on simple actions to attack mismatches and get guys to spots the team is comfortable scoring from. Everything begins with Ron Harper Jr. who is a three-level assassin capable of destroying any zone defense that beleaguered teams throw at them. Young is a beast of an attacker in transition and hopefully will bring out the best of Rocket Watts who should take a few notes on Young’s approach. Against man to man defenses in the half-court, the Scarlet Knights will play two-man games with Baker or Young and Harper Jr., they will post Johnson and play plenty of drive and kick. You will also see some “Spain pick-and-roll” (screening for the screener to open up pick-and-pop chances and weak-side cuts to the rim), and a healthy dose of “three-man weave” and other simple motion actions to get the defense unsettled.

This is a team that wants to make both sides of the ball into individual contests and to expose physical mismatches (this is likely a game where Foster Loyer will struggle). For Michigan State, interestingly, this is the kind of game and matchup that could get the Spartan defense back on track because there is not a ton of deception or trickery — just a matter of executing and aggressive tough plays, on both ends.

Film Study:

As you can tell from these highlights, this Rutgers team is together, connected on both ends and just plays a superb brand of basketball. Mulcahy is a stupendous glue-guy and sixth man who can play any position on the wing or as a forward. They have no quit in them, and they play tough, smart basketball.

Key Players:

Ron Harper Jr. (6’6” junior forward), averaging an absurd 22 points per game, seven rebounds, two assists, and just over three made three-pointers per game (on 48 percent shooting from beyond the arc). Harper is one of the top players in the entire country; a gamer, a finisher, totally confident in his game and his ability. He has long arms, a thick body, a ton of skill, and all of the sprezzatura one would expect from a future NBA rotation player. He is a good-but-not-great defensive player (he takes some possessions off, and cannot afford to get in foul trouble), and will carry Rutgers the entire season. Check out Zach Smith’s article on how to effectively guard Harper.

Geo Baker (6’4” senior guard), averaging just over 10 points, three assists, one steal, and three rebounds per game. Baker, finally getting healthy, has begun to assert himself of late for Rutgers after a slow start to the season. While his three point shot has left him somewhat, his savvy, competitiveness, and scoring know-how have been on full display. Another solid defensive guard, Baker can and has won games on his own for Rutgers in the past.

Jacob Young (6’2” senior guard), averaging about 15 points, five assists, two steals, and two rebounds per game. Young has been terrific in his senior season. While he is a bit erratic, at times, on both ends — his athleticism, quickness, toughness, and aggression dictates play and drives the energy of this team. He will pressure the heck out of the ball at the point of attack and will absolutely roll a matchup if he is given oxygen.

Montez Mathis (6’4” junior wing), averaging around 15 points, four rebounds, two assists, and a steal per game. Mathis has been incredibly consistent this season scoring in double figures in nearly every game, and playing really well in the last four contests. He is a very good three-point shooter, aggressive getting to the rim, and a solid defender on the wing.

Myles Johnson (6’11” senior center), averaging around eight points, nine rebounds, and two blocks per game. With Omoruyi out Johnson is the danger man in the post and is playing the best ball of his career. He has some solid post-scoring game, and will compete and contest shots defensively. Have to go at him and get him in foul trouble.

Game plan:

Joey Hauser will likely start on Ron Harper Jr., but expect Malik Hall and Aaron Henry to take most of that defensive responsibility. If Harper gets slowed down, then things become far easier. Running him off of the three-point line will be crucial and then forcing him to become a passer — he is a very good player, but if he has a weakness it is as a passer and creator for others.

AJ Hoggard, Loyer, and Watts will have tons of chances to put their own defensive stamp on the game by competing with Young and Baker — they cannot turn over the ball and give free points to those two, and the Spartan guards MUST hit open shots.

Gabe Brown and Josh Langford have to put the clamps on Mathis, and crucial to this is keeping him off of the offensive glass. Defensively, assuming that Omoruyi still is not fully healthy, every big that gets minutes against Johnson has to be tough on the interior (keep him from getting easy, deep post-touches) and must go at Johnson who has a penchant for picking up fouls.

You will note that this Rutgers defense has two great weapons: a steal man in Young and a shot-blocker in Johnson. It turns out that playing two such players makes the rest of your somewhat average defenders far better. Hopefully the Spartan coaching staff takes a page from Steve Pikiell’s book and plays one of the two shot-blockers (Mady Sissoko and Marcus Bingham Jr.) some major minutes in this one — because Henry (and Brown to some degree) can be those “steal-guy”’ for the Spartans.

Offensively, this game is about attacking — everything has to be at pace, every screen has to be solid, and the offensive glass has to be green. If the Spartans can attack and play with some relentlessness, determination, and appropriate fear, then this could be the inflection point of the season. Expect Aaron Henry to set the tone, for good or ill.


Shocking result as the plucky under-dog Spartans stun Rutgers late. I think this “straight-up” defensive match-up will give the Spartans a chance to get their groove back on defense by playing a game of “face-punch.” Expect the Spartan wings to turn the tide on the offensive and defensive glass, and for Rutgers to regret getting into a running game with the suddenly-sprightly Spartans.

Josh Langford puts his stamp on the season with a late dagger.

MSU 76 Rutgers 72