This game was setup for a win for the Spartans. Michigan State got to play in Madison Square Garden. The bright lights and national audience should be second nature to a team that has played multiple times on an aircraft carrier. Their opponent should have shrunk in the spotlight.
Their opponent, the scrappy team from New Jersey, was supposed to have lost their home court advantage by moving from the RAC (technically known as Jersey Subs Arena - ugh), to downtown Manhattan and a more neutral court.
Instead, Rutgers rose to the moment, battled through a terrible shooting night and rode a loud crowd to a 61-55 ugly win over Michigan State.
Here are my shoot from the hip takes on the game. Like an end of shot clock heave, ready them and let me know what your deep shot after the game is in the comments.
POINT 1: Michigan State Needs Hall to Lead AND Know His LImitations
The Malik Hall saga has dominated Michigan State’s narrative all season long. The unfortunate foot injury and then recurrence of that injury has meant each game has been played under a cloud of “will he play, or won’t he play.” Today, for the second game in a row Malik Hall played. And his presence was felt.
After a full five days of practice, Malik Hall logged 26 minutes. In his time on the court, he was a one man rebounding machine, logging a game high 13 rebounds. The Forward’s versatility was on display as at times Hall played center (on defense of Rutgers big man Clifford Omoruyi), and at others he played wing. He was all over the court. He single handedly kept possessions alive, and recorded a respectable three assists.
The downfall for Michigan State was Hall was a disastrous 1 for 9 (0 for 2 from three) from the floor. It wasn’t just that Hall took shots and missed, it was that on the majority of those misses Hall seemed to put his head down and play hero ball.
This year’s MSU squad needs people to hunt their shots. The idea that Tyson Walker needs to be more aggressive (still true) is such a worn out talking point, I barely bring it up anymore even if it does apply to this game (it absolutely did in the second half). Yet, Malik Hall uncharacteristically took on a role that was outside the flow of the game.
For stretches of the game, it felt like Hall tried to do his best James Harden impression but didn’t realize he was emulating 2022 Harden rather than the glory days in Houston.
This out of character 1 vs 5 approach hurt MSU. It felt like when MSU was starting to get things rolling, Hall would get the ball and it would just stick there. Slowed down into a Hall vs. everybody type move that either Hall is not good enough to convert, or is not healthy enough yet to convert.
Hall is essential to Michigan State success, but he still needs to find ways to play within the offense, and trust in those around him to deliver. Even on a night where it felt like no one had their shot going.
POINT 2: Some Positive Signs from the Usual Blame Game Recipients
In the last matchup between MSU and Rutgers, Mady SIssoko had his worst career performance. He was a clear liability on the floor. In this game, Sissoko reminded everyone of his value.
Even with Sissoko limited minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Sissoko helped set a defensive tone in the first 5-minutes. In the second half, SIssoko helped slow down Rutgers big man Cliffford Omoruyi.
Sissoko still showed all of his limitations. Limited offense, slow hands on quick passes that led to some bobbled turnovers, and at times getting beat. But in general, his defense was part of what kept Michigan State in the game in the second half. By the end, Rutgers Omoruyi had an impressive 15 points and 12 rebounds, but those are not career highs. And Omoruyi did a lot of his damage when Jaxon Kohler was on the floor or Michigan State went small.
That is significant progress for Sissoko and the type of bounce back Michigan State needs. What everyone will have to accept long term, is that may be the ceiling for Sissoko in most games - play decently in the post to limit the other team’s big man to their season average, and hope the rest of MSU defense can hold up. Unfortunately, a Paul Mulcahy had 17 points in the second half for Rutgers, this team wide approach didn’t work at Madison Square Garden.
Another popular target for disdain this season has been Pierre Brooks. Brooks mostly had deserved the criticism. In this game he looked semi serviceable for the first time in weeks. Admittedly it was in only 6 minutes of action, but unlike his performance against Indiana, Brooks looked like he may have finally figured out where he needs to be on defense. In a bleak loss, there is a fraction of a sliver of silver to that cloud.
POINT 3: Score More or Stop the Opponents Second Guy - Do One of the Two
Moving forward, Michigan State has a strategic choice to make. They can either find a way to score an additional 8-12 points a game consistently, or their defense has to figure out a way to stop the opponents second scorer.
It’s clear this season Michigan State cannot stop really talented big men on other teams. From Zach Edey to Trayce Jackson-Davis, to Omoruyi, no opposing center is having a “bad day” against MSU. Fine. Most often MSU goes in with a game plan that acknowledges that. The problem down the stretch of many of these games, from Illinois, to Purdue (both times), to Indiana to Rutgers, is that someone other than the opponents big man also gets hot - usually late in the second half.
Michigan State is falling because guys like Fletcher Loyer of Purdue and Paul Mulcahy of Rutgers are putting up 15 points in the games final 10-minutes.
If this is because MSU’s backcourt and wings are fatigued, then they need to find a better rotation. If it is because the team is not focusing, then Izzo needs to figure out when to call a timeout and get his guys better focused in the final ten minutes.
Regardless of the approach, it needs to be fixed. Mulcahy put on a scoring clinic in the closing ten minutes of this game that included taking Malik Hall off the dribble for an embarrassingly easy layup from the top of the key.
Michigan State needs to stop this second scorer late in the game. That or they can find the extra 8-12 points offensively that has so dearly eluded them all season. Doing one of these is essential to future success.