Rutgers gets buried by record breaking performance on Sanders' return
The Rutgers men’s basketball team has struggled all season in many aspects, but one in particular stands out among the rest.
The Scarlet Knights have been especially bad at defending the perimeter. They’ve been allowing opponents to shoot at will from beyond the arc, with teams averaging a 37.1 percent clip against them heading into Wednesday, a number that jumps to 41 percent when looking exclusively at Big Ten conference games.
One of the teams that terrorized Rutgers from downtown this season was Michigan State.
The No. 2 team in the country tied a program record with 17 3-pointers when the Knights traveled to East Lansing Jan. 31, winning handily by a score of 96-62.
When the Spartans traveled to Piscataway Wednesday night, they looked to exploit Rutgers’ biggest weakness once again, but got off to a slow start compared to the last meeting. MSU hit just 5 of its first 15 attempts from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, the Knights were playing some of their best basketball of the season.
Rutgers hit 7 of 9 shots and 5 of 6 on two separate occasions in a first half where it finished at 67 percent from the floor.
It looked like the Knights were heading towards replicating the program-record upset of national runners-up then-No. 4 Wisconsin from last season — its last win in Big Ten play — while shutting down one of the best teams in the nation.
Then Bryn Forbes happened.
The senior guard caught fire from range at the tail end of the first half and carried the momentum into the second half, hitting 5 of 6 from deep to give Michigan State a 53-44 lead with 18:33 remaining in the contest.
Forbes’ efficiency from three propelled the Spartans to a 54-25 run throughout the second half en route to a 97-66 blowout.
He finished with a game-high 33 points, all coming from 3-point range, where he finished 11-for-16, resulting a gaudy 69 percent clip.
What do you do when a guy is shooting like that?
“Hope he misses,” Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan said of what you do when a guy like Forbes, the nation’s top 3-point shooter, gets hot. “We made adjustments … he just gets up in the air, he just knocks it down. He’s got great confidence.”
Freshman guard Corey Sanders was impressed with his fellow guard’s performance.
Regardless of the adjustments the Knights made, when someone like Forbes gets into rhythm, there’s wasn't much they could do, according to Sanders.
“That boy was amazing tonight,” Sanders said. “Sometimes, there’s nothing you could do when a man’s on like that. Hand in his face, no hand in his face, the ball’s still going in, no bouncing around, it was straight through the net. He’s a heck of a player, I gotta give it to him.”
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was hoping his team wouldn’t have to resort to the same strategy as the first contest the second time around.
Once Rutgers began playing solid defense on the inside, his team had to begin letting it fly from the perimeter, which ended up paying off.
“We didn’t want to (emphasize the 3), we wanted to get it inside. When we got it inside a couple of times, we got it swatted. I thought (Rutgers’) bigs kicked our butt in all honesty in that first half,” the 21st-year head coach said. “The threes changed when we started rebounding and getting a running game going. We weren’t rebounding very well because they were shooting 70 something percent.”
Izzo told reporters in a press conference to preview Wednesday’s matchup that he believed, “If (Rutgers) play good and we play good, I think we win.”
Rutgers played its best for a large chunk of the first half and still walked away on the wrong end of a 31-point blowout.
Despite shooting 67 percent and holding their visitors to 44 percent in the first half, the Knights went into the locker room trailing 43-41.
But that wasn’t even the most frustrating aspect.
“The frustrating thing was the turnovers that we had,” Sanders said. “We had nine turnovers in the first half that led to 17 of their points. We cut those nine turnovers over, we probably would’ve been up going into halftime with a little more momentum, but that’s the name of the game.”
Sanders performance after returning from four-game suspension for a “violation of team rules” wasn’t enough for his team to avoid its program-record 17th straight loss.
Like Rutgers, Sanders was on fire in the first half.
He scored 15 points and dished four assists in the opening 20 minutes, including a sequence where he hit a 3-pointer in National Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine’s face before getting a fast-break dunk on a steal to give the Knights a 22-19 lead heading into the under-12 timeout.
Valentine’s high profile didn’t steer the Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate from playing the same way he always does.
“I try to go at everybody,” he said. “He was guarding me … I was just playing ball.”
Sanders finished with 19 points, scoring just 4 points in the second half on 2-for-8 shooting, and six assists.
Despite being unable to produce similar results in the second half, the Lakeland, Florida, native is happy with his first game since Feb. 13 against Ohio State.
“I had a fast start tonight,” he said. “Finished slow, but I had a fast start, got the juices flowing, the crowd was really into it, so it felt good. It felt good to be back.”