It hasn’t taken long for MSU’s men’s basketball season to go from feeling relatively safe to dangling off of a mid-January cliff in Big Ten play. After the huge road win in Madison, the future looked bright. After late game struggles against Illinois, it would have still seemed at least somewhat bright, but then Malik Hall re-injured his foot, and the hope began to dim as the severity of Hall’s injury remained unclear.
Then Purdue happened. A 64-63 loss punctuated by a whole lot of irritating officiating, a late Tyson Walker three that became a long Tyson Walker two, and a Zach Edey bunny in the final seconds to put the Boilers on top for the final time hurt a whole lot. And all of this happened without Malik Hall on the floor. As other writers have pointed out, MIchigan State’s season with Malik Hall in the lineup has been near elite, while the season without Hall has been….not good. 5-4 without Hall doesn’t bode well for tournament hopes.
So, after a heartbreaker against the Big Ten’s best, we look into the future at a Hall free future (for at least a couple weeks), and what do we find? Just the Big Ten’s second best - the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers has a brand problem, and it will for years to come. Its addition to the Big Ten was a strange money grab that brought a bunch of subpar athletic programs into the league in exchange for the insatiable appetite that New York City so obviously has for Rutgers sports.
Steve Pikiell is doing his part to fix the brand problems that Rutgers has. Pikiell played for Jim Calhoun at UConn, and coached at Stony Brook for a decade, ultimately leading them to an NCAA Tournament in 2016 before heading to Piscataway. After three losing seasons, the 2019-2020 team was on track to make the NCAA Tournament before it was canceled in the early days of the Covid pandemic, and Rutgers has followed that up with two straight tournament appearances. Rutgers is talented, and the RAC is one of the nastiest road environments in the Big Ten. Rutgers is good, folks!
That leads us to Thursday night’s game in East Lansing. The Spartans go in knowing for sure that Malik Hall won’t be on the floor. The Purdue game featured an electric home crowd, quantum physics, a career day from Tyson Walker, and a collective understanding that Purdue was the big game being hunted. Rutgers is the only team that’s beaten Purdue this year, and they play excellent defense. Their starting center, Cliff Omoruyi, averages 10 rebounds, 13 points, and 2 blocks, and at 6 ‘11 will seem like a refreshing change of pace after dealing with Zach Edey on Monday afternoon. Mady Sissoko’s performance against a closer competitor will be something to keep an eye on, as will the rotation at the 5 off the bench for MSU.
All indications are that this will be a tight game. The records are close, the individual matchups aren’t lopsided in either direction, KenPom has MSU winning by 1, and sportsbooks have MSU favored by 3.
We’ll see how things unfold on Thursday night, but MSU can’t take Rutgers lightly. If shots fall like they did against Purdue, MSU has a very good chance. If they shoot like they did in Champaign, it could be a tough evening, and the word “bubble” could become way too ingrained in our collective minds.