After a 6-day layoff, MSU returned to action with a game versus Rutgers at the “world’s most famous arena”. It was a vital game for MSU to hold onto hope of finishing 2nd in the conference. Before the game started, Fox’s pregame coverage had a segment about former MSU assistant coach Mike Garland’s brush with death last summer after retiring from coaching. It was definitely a touching and warming story, but it was sad nonetheless, and that turned out to be the appropriate mood for this game.
Game Flow Highlights:
MSU won the tip, as they usually do, and went immediately to a screen-and-roll lob attempt to Mady Sissoko. And, as it usually does, the ball went through Mady’s paws and resulted in a game-opening turnover. Rutgers returned the favor with a turnover of their own, and a few seconds later, Tyson Walker opened the scoring by hitting a jumper. Another familiar blunder occurred soon after, as Joey Hauser nearly threw a pass away by sending the ball to AJ Hoggard in the backcourt as a Rutgers defender had a beat on it; MSU was lucky to keep it, though they did not manage to score on that possession. For their early mishaps, both Mady and Joey were pulled to the bench even before the 1st TV timeout. Moments later, when the game did go to commercial, MSU trailed 4-5.
The next segment is when the sadness of this game really started to appear. Neither team made a FG, with Rutgers missing two 3-pointers, something which would be a theme for both teams tonight. MSU added a couple more turnovers, and the only points were a pair of FTs by Cam Spencer to make it 4-7 at the under-12. Mady picked up his second foul during this stretch, and that turned out to be his last action of the half.
Both teams finally figured out how to put the ball in the basket when the game resumed, though both teams still were having possessions end in sloppy turnovers. For MSU, Hauser, Pierre Brooks, and Hoggard contributed baskets here and Jaden Akins drew a shooting foul as the game went to the next break, with MSU down 10-11.
Akins would hit his 2 FTs after the commercial to put the Spartans up 1. Fouls seemed to become a little more common at this point, and the game felt like it was lacking any semblance of flow. In a freak accident, Rutgers’ Mawot Mag injured his knee when he took the ball down low and needed to be helped off the court. At that point, he was the game’s leading scorer, and this felt like a major turning point early. Not long after the injury, Walker scored on a high running floater that went off the glass, and on the next possession, he hit a triple after Malik Hall collected an offensive rebound. This gave MSU a lead that they would hold onto well into the 2nd half. Rutgers called a timeout, which ended up serving as the under-4, with MSU up 17-15.
A little back and forth opened the last segment before the intermission, and then Walker demonstrated why he is the best defender on the team; after a Hoggard turnover, Rutgers looked like they would run it down for an easy layup, but Walker hustled back and smacked Cam Spencer’s effort from behind. Jaxon Kohler would get his first (and only) points as MSU brought it back the other way. Hauser and Akins would add a basket apiece, Akins on a breakaway that began with another Walker steal and then a beautiful pass over Jaden’s head that allowed him to lay it in at the buzzer. MSU went to the locker room up 25-19. The late run was nice but it did not hide some troubling signs. MSU was 1-9 from deep, only to be outdone by Rutgers 1-10 effort. MSU already had 6 turnovers, though fortunately Rutgers was not converting those into easy points the other way. On the bright side, MSU had already recorded 4 blocks and was holding Rutgers to under 25% shooting. And, in a reversal of the first game between these two, MSU held a rebounding edge at halftime.
During halftime it was announced that Mawot Mag would not be returning for Rutgers.
To open the second half, Mady Sissoko was all over the place. On Rutgers’ opening possession, Mady was lucky to not be called for his 3rd foul as Paul Mulcahy would score a layup amongst all sorts of contact. On offense, Mady caught a pass in the post with his back to the basket, then turned for a short jumper and drew the foul; he would hit both freebies. A minute later, Mady had an amazing block as he came down into the lane to help on defense. Walker corralled the ball and pushed up court where Hoggard would eventually score a layup to give MSU an 8-point cushion, its largest lead of the game. Rutgers came back quick and got a dunk from their star, Omoruyi, on a play where Mady unwisely abandoned him down low to try doubling the ball handler out by the elbow, only to have the entry pass go over his head to the wide-open player. Immediately after the dunk, Rutgers called a timeout. The teams would trade turnovers and then layups, and MSU led 31-25 at the 2nd half’s first commercial break.
When the game resumed, AJ Hoggard was on the bench and MSU’s offense became stagnant. Rutgers defense stepped up the pressure and succeeded in forcing MSU’s ballhandlers away from the basket. At the under-12, it was tied at 33.
Back from the break, Akins got it going with a triple that touched nothing but nylon. It was only MSU’s second 3 of the game. On MSU’s next offensive trip, Hoggard drew a foul which put Rutgers in the penalty with over 11 minutes to go. I am not sure I ever saw an MSU team get into the bonus that early. Jaxon Kohler surrendered an &1 to Omoruyi. Then Mulcahy would split a pair on Rutgers’ next possession. Hauser and Derek Simpson would trade jumpers, and MSU clinged to a 40-39 lead at the under-8.
Joey missed the front of a 1-and-1, and then Rutgers regained the lead on a triple by Caleb McConnell, their first lead since about five minutes remaining in the first half. Now, the referees decided to start trying to even out the foul situation, and unfortunately for the Spartans, Rutgers, who was shooting about 50% from the stripe up to this point, finally began making them. The earlier struggles were an aberration, as Rutgers is usually a good free-throw shooting team featuring four players who hit at least 80% of their attempts, and 2 at over 90%. Mulcahy would hit 3 of his next 4 attempts, and Tom Izzo called a timeout with about five minutes remaining and trailing 40-45.
MSU looked like they were going to make it interesting, getting 2 from Hall at the free-throw line, a big defensive stop where Paul Mulcahy tried to throw the ball off a Spartan after chasing a long offensive rebound to the baseline only for Walker to collect the ball off the high bounce, and finally a dunk by Mady off a nice drop pass from Hall. Rutgers was forced to call a timeout of their own to stop the run, their lead down to 2 with 3:45 remaining.
It was the Paul Mulcahy show after that as he would hit a free throw and then 2 layups in a span of less than 90 seconds to stretch the lead to 7 and making Izzo call another timeout with just over 2 to go. From here, MSU’s strategy was to start fouling immediately to try preserving clock, but, as stated above, Rutgers was finally making theirs, and MSU just could not hit their triples on the other end to be able to chip away. Ironically, Pierre Brooks did hit a 3 with 18 seconds left, only his second triple in the last 30 days, to make the final margin of defeat 55-61.
This just felt like another game MSU had no business losing. Rutgers was awful from deep and from the stripe. One of their best players was knocked out in the first half with a leg injury. MSU was doing better on the glass against them and managed to open up an 8-point lead early in the second half. But the offense collapsed during a stretch where both Hoggard and Walker were on the bench. In fact, it seems like anytime Hoggard gets a breather lately all flow disappears and the points vanish with it. And once again, MSU allowed someone who is an opponent’s role player to completely take over, this time allowing Paul Mulcahy to just about double his scoring average. MSU should have won this game. I hope Izzo is still tearing into his team as I write this more than 2 hours after the final buzzer. The lack of focus and the game-to-game inconsistencies among this squad’s top players is shocking and saddening.
3 Things I Liked (I really don’t like doing this part of the article when we lose):
1. Walker’s defense. I probably should write about this one more, but today there were some absolute gems. Officially he had 2 steals, but it was 3; I have no idea how they counted that steal on Rutgers’ first possession for Hauser. Walker also contributed a Sportscenter-Top 10-worthy block. And of course, he always gets the defensive assignment against the opposition’s best ball handler, which probably has a lot to do with why most of our opponents end up scoring well below their season averages.
2. Hall on the glass. In a game where he was struggling with his shot, Malik Hall was an absolute beast getting rebounds. He ended with 6 offensive and 7 defensive, and his 13 total led all players in this contest. At 6’8”, he isn’t the tallest player out there, and he is only a few games back from a foot injury. I think a rebounding performance like this one should give us all a sense that he is 100% recovered and that his superb athleticism can be counted on moving forward. Just need him to not be giving up so many rebounding opportunities off his own shots.
3. I have no 3rd like to give to the team today, so instead I will give it to the MSU fans who made it to MSG today. There were two instances during the broadcast that a “Go Green, Go White” cheer was loudly audible, and, in my opinion, it was the clearest chants that I could discern all game. So, way to go, NY-area Spartans. Sorry the team couldn’t get you the W today.
3 Things I Did Not Like (this should be easy):
1. Okay guys, I am done biting my tongue on this one. I am going to come out and say it because I have wanted to announce this to you for as long as I have been a TOC writer. Joey Hauser is one of my all-time least favorite MSU players. I have a Mt. Rushmore for this undesirable distinction. The first two faces on this landmark were Korie Lucious and Lourawls Nairn, Jr. Joey Hauser is the third, and I will hold the fourth spot open for some future player who draws my ire with extreme regularity. I actually probably should have put Izzo taking Joey out before the first commercial break today as my third like. I can’t understand how many mental errors this guy commits. Sloppy turnovers and near-turnovers are happening at what feels like a growing rate from him lately. His shot seems to be failing for longer stretches recently and there are a growing number of shots that you just know aren’t going in from the moment it comes out of his hands. Today’s ten-point performance was perhaps the quietest ten points I have ever seen anyone ever score. It’s as if we can tell which Joey we are going to get based on his first couple minutes, and today it was obvious that it was not going to be good Joey.
2. As I noted in the Quick Analysis above, MSU demonstrated its unique ability to make stars out of the least likely of candidates. Even before all the late fouls, Paul Mulcahy was having a great second half, repeatedly blowing by the defense for a layup, or at least a trip to the free-throw line (where he uncharacteristically missed 4 of his attempts; he had missed 3 all season coming into today). I want to see MSU refocus on making one player beat us while we lock up everyone else, making the other team as one dimensional as possible. If Zach Edey is going to go off and single-handedly beat the Spartans, I can live with it. I can’t live with Paul Mulcahy being the guy who leads Rutgers to a win.
3. Lob plays to Mady. By my count, there were two such plays today. The first was the first play of the game, and the ball went through his hands for an unforced turnover. The second was later in the game and was more the fault of the passer, but it still resulted in the ball going the other way. I want to see more plays for Mady where he gets to catch the ball with his back to the basket and his feet on the floor. There were two plays like this today. The first, he went up and drew a foul to get to the line. The second, this one not an entry pass, just a drop pass from a teammate also downlow, but it was still him getting it while planted, and it led to a thunderous dunk. Izzo, can we have more plays like this for Mady, please?
MSU goes back home for a late game on Tuesday against Maryland. Tip-off is at 9 PM, and it is now an absolute must win. MSU can’t lose any more if the prediction I made yesterday of going 8-1 down the stretch is going to come to fruition.