Rutgers faces uphill battle with Big Ten home opener against No. 3 Michigan State
On Sunday night against the Gophers, the Scarlet Knights (6-2, 0-1) struggled greatly on offense, failing to make shots and committing numerous unforced turnovers.
But even after giving up 89 points in the loss, Rutgers is still top five in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 58.9 points per game.
The Spartans (7-1, 1-0), though, are a team that boasts a stout defensive unit as well. Per analytics website KenPom, Michigan State ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency and is atop the Big Ten by a large margin.
The Spartans are led by Naismith Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, who has 550 career wins — all at Michigan State — and won the National Championship in 2000.
On the court, the Spartans are led by an elite front court featuring forwards Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward, who combine for nearly 50 points per game and each average over 6 rebounds per contest.
Bridges, a sophomore, is a clear candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year and is regarded as one of the best players in the country.
Ward is one of the most efficient players in the country, as he plays just 18 minutes per game, but is Michigan State's leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points. He has been incredibly productive as a finisher, with his 68.3 percent field goal mark leading the Big Ten.
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell had nothing but praise for the Spartans when previewing them on Monday, going out of his way to note the presence of players like starting point guard Cassius Winston and Ward when asked about what makes Bridges so effective.
"They have a Hall of Fame coach. They play at an elite level heart-wise on both ends of the floor," Pikiell said. "That's what I'm most amazed when watching all the tapes, how hard they play on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor."
Looking back to Sunday's loss, it was evident that the Knights had the ability to play with a top-ranked team on the road. But things fell apart late in the second half, specifically with 7:03 left in the game when junior guard Corey Sanders said something to a referee and was issued a technical foul.
Despite not being ejected and not having fouled out, Pikiell kept Sanders on the bench for the rest of the game and the Gophers turned what was a 13-point advantage to a 22-point win from that point on.
"I just want him to play. I just want him to play basketball," Pikiell said of Sanders. "(It was) just a reminder for him to stick with what he does."
Before that moment, Rutgers had done well to not let a 10-point halftime deficit get any larger than 12 and had reduced it to as low as 8 points. But the Knights did not make enough shots to compete down the stretch, as their 32.4 percent mark from the field being the main reason they went home with a loss.
Regardless, Pikiell was encouraged by a number of things from the game, but acknowledged his team has areas it needs to improve in to beat top teams in the conference.
"I thought we had moments (Sunday). We're gonna have to play really well in those games," he said. "We're gonna have to make some shots too which would help. Our defense wasn't where we need to be and in order to beat elite teams, you have to be elite at one end of the floor at least."
With a stagnant offense and porous defense, it was surprising to see Rutgers stay in that game for as long as it did. But Michigan State presents maybe an even bigger task, and the Knights cannot afford to play poorly on both ends of the floor and expect to compete.
It is clear that in order to defeat the Spartans, Rutgers will indeed need to play elite on one — probably both — ends of the floor and if that happens, anything is possible.
"Welcome to the Big Ten," Pikiell said about the step-up in competition during conference play. "It's a big-boy league with some big-time players."
Additionally, fans and students are asked to bring new or gently used teddy bears for the Rutgers Leadership Academy's halftime Teddy Bear Toss. At halftime, the crowd will be asked to throw the teddy bears onto the court when prompted and all teddy bears will be donated to children in need.
The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee will also be holding its annual toy drive, in which fans are asked to bring new toys in their original packaging and donate them in the RAC lobby. More information on the events can be found here.