Michigan State (17-4, 8-2): No. 17 (Kenpom)
1 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Jr.), A.J. Hoggard (6’4” So.)
2 - Max Christie (6’6” Fr.), Jaden Akins (6’4” Fr.)
3 - Gabe Brown (6’8” Sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’6” Fr.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.), Malik Hall (6’7” Jr.)
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr. (7’0” Sr.), Julius Marble (6’9” Jr.), Mady Sissoko (6’9” So.)
If this is what the Michigan State Spartans look like when they are scuffling and struggling for consistency, then you should buy as much stock as possible before the title odds change. The Spartans are struggling for consistency — A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker appear to yo-yo between solid-to-excellent and abject disaster, Gabe Brown is suffering through the worst shooting slump of his career, Marcus Bingham Jr. is only slowly coming out of his post-COVID dip in form and Max Christie’s offensive performances (like Brown’s) rely on hitting jump-shots too much.
Despite these struggles, the Spartans find themselves near the top of the Big Ten standings, and very much within striking-distance of the Final Four advanced metrics cut-off lines as the No. 17 team in Kenpom’s ratings (No. 29 in offensive rating and No. 25 in defensive rating). Typical Final Four teams are top-25 teams on both ends of the court, and if the Spartans can get on a run of consistent play, I would not be surprised to see this team finish around No. 15 on both ends of the court — not quite superlative on either side, but a dogged, balanced, two-way beast of a squad.
How are the Spartans cobbling together wins (or narrow losses) even through ho-hum performances? Balance, timely play-making, the emergence of an ironically consistent Malik Hall (the only consistent performer since the Northwestern win to start the year) and the long-awaited resurgence of Joey Hauser.
This team has five good-to-great players right now that I will order in a rough power-ranking: Hall, Hauser, Christie, Bingham and Brown. Beyond these five, Hoggard, Walker and Jaden Akins (all roughly on par), and Julius Marble fill out the rough power rankings. But let’s take a closer look at Hall and Hauser.
First, Hall, whose game-winner against Maryland may end up sparking a major run for the Spartans as they turn toward the toughest part of their schedule:
Over his last 11 games, Hall has been excellent outside of the Northwestern road win. And in his last seven games, Hall has averaged 11.5 points and six rebounds per game. Hall has been terrific off the dribble, hit mid-range shots, drilled open three-point attempts, rebounded, defended and helped connect the lineup on both ends. He has been excellent and played and led like a captain.
Hall’s play has been bolstered by Hauser’s downright exciting resurgence. In easily the most consistent stretch of his Michigan State career, Hauser’s shooting, timely rebounding, solid defense (particularly off-ball), good passing and general grit have sparked the team seemingly every game, and have steadied the ship repeatedly in tight games.
In his last 10 games, Hauser has been good-to-great when he has been on the court (note his positive box plus-minus in every game even if in a few games the team was marginally better when he was off the court). Even more importantly, Hauser’s three-point shooting has begun to percolate as his rebounding has also significantly increased. In his last four games (where his momentum has really begun to grow), Hauser is averaging over nine points and six rebounds per game, while averaging nearly two made three-point shots per game.
While Brown, Christie and Bingham have been a bit inconsistent — struggling with their offense or defense seemingly in every game of late — the depth of the team remains startling, with eight players averaging more than six points per game. When Hoggard and Walker fully activate their games, and Bingham regains his early season conditioning, this team will likely prove its Final Four potential.
Rutgers (12-9, 6-5): No. 104 (Kenpom)
1 - Geo Baker (6’4” Sr.)
2 - Paul Mulcahy (6’6” Jr.), Jalen Miller (6’2” Fr.)
3 - Caleb McConnell (6’7” Sr.), Mawot Mag (6’7” So.), Aundre Hyatt (6’6” So.)
4 - Ron Harper Jr. (6’6” Sr.)
5 - Clifford Omoruyi (6’11” So.), Dean Reiber (6’10” So.)
For all intents and purposes, Rutgers has an eight-man rotation (Jalen Miller just does not play a ton or do much when he is out there). Within that eight-man group, six guys score —Dean Reiber and Mawot Mag combine to score about five points per game. The danger men remain the same from last season: Ron Harper Jr. leads the team in scoring at about 16 points per game, Geo Baker and Clifford Omoruyi each score about 11 per game and Paul Mulcahy, Caleb McConnell, and Aundre Hyatt (an LSU transfer) score about eight, six, and five points per game, respectively.
Stay attached to Harper and Baker and this Rutgers team has no hope. Last season in a tale of two games — one a Spartan beatdown and one a Rutgers domination — Harper and Baker were defended well in both contests and never had too much of an impact. This season, the Spartans will have to replicate those strong defensive performances.
Rutgers will help the Spartans win the game if the Scarlet Knights send guys to the offensive glass —Omoruyi and Mag tend to pursue offensive rebounds and have the Scarlet Knights at a respectable 30.5 percent offensive rebounding rate — because it will disrupt their generally solid transition defense. If Rutgers does not commit offensive rebounders, however, its offense will sputter as the Scarlet Knights are one of the worst shooting teams in the nation.
This is a good team, and Rutgers should be better than its record, but things just have not worked out for the Scarlet Knights this season due, in large part, to their complete lack of offensive juice off the bench.
This may not be the game for Brown and Christie to break out of their respective slumps —McConnell and Mulcahy are good wing defenders with length, toughness and strength — but this is a game where we may see Bingham turn the tide. Omoruyi is good, but Bingham should like the matchup. Look for the front-court to rack-up rebounds, draw fouls and put the Rutgers front-court into a meat-grinder.
Hoggard and Walker will need to be patient, and Akins and Christie will have to stay attached to the dangerous Baker. Amp up the pace. Attack relentlessly and get Omoruyi in foul trouble, when the reserve bigs have to play bigger minutes this team really struggles.
Expect a tough one. And expect a win by the Spartans.
Players play. Tough players win.