| Detroit Free Press
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo: Rutgers ‘reminds me of what we did here’
Michigan State basketball’s Tom Izzo appreciates what his counterpart Steve PIkiell has built, as Spartans host No. 14 Rutgers. Filmed Jan. 4, 2021.
Michigan State athletics
It’s back to ranked competition for Michigan State basketball, even though the Spartans are no longer ranked themselves.
Despite getting their first Big Ten victory of the season Saturday at Nebraska, MSU dropped out of the USA Today coaches poll Monday for the first time since Week 2 last season; the Spartans remained in the Associated Press poll at No. 23 after losing three straight to open conference play.
“We’re in a program where we should never lose three games in a row,” forward Malik Hall said Monday. “We lost to some really good teams. We’re just in a moment of improving and making sure that we’re on this ramp upwards.”
MSU (7-3, 1-3) returns Tuesday night to East Lansing to host No. 14 Rutgers (7-2, 3-2). Tipoff is 9 p.m. on ESPN2. Here is what to watch as the Spartans begin a stretch of four of their next five games at Breslin Center.
Getting stars going
One of Izzo’s big missions this week is to reinvigorate Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser.
After scoring 56 points combined in wins over Notre Dame, Duke and Detroit Mercy, Watts has been in a scoring slump. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore has 40 points in his past six games. He hasn’t reached double figures in five straight and shot just 25% overall (12 of 48) and 19% from 3-point range (4 of 21) in those games.
Izzo has stopped using Watts as his primary point guard, moving him to shooting guard to start at Minnesota and then bringing him off the bench for just 15 minutes in Saturday’s 84-77 win at Nebraska. Watts was 3 of 8 for nine points and did not get a rebound for the second straight game.
Hauser, meanwhile, has scored in single digits in three of the last four games, with a career-high 27 points in a loss to Wisconsin sandwiched in between. The 6-9, 225-pound junior has missed all seven of his 3-point attempts in the past two games and is just 2-for-12 in that span. Hauser also has not had a double-digit rebounding game since producing four double-doubles in his first six games as a Spartan to open the season.
“If we can get those two guys going, both on the offense and defensive end,” Izzo said, “I think our team improves a lot.”
MSU also continues to make a concerted effort to get to the free-throw line.
After taking just two free throws while falling behind by 20 points in the first half at Minnesota, the Spartans have attempted 42 free throws the past 60 minutes of basketball. They went 19 of 26 against the Cornhuskers on Saturday.
Izzo pointed to point guard A.J. Hoggard and swingman Aaron Henry being more aggressive in attacking the basket as a boost to getting more foul shots. And that generally has been successful for MSU, which is shooting 75.9% from the line this season.
“You’ve got to penetrate,” Izzo said. “If you penetrate, you get a chance to get to the free-throw line more, which we did. The last two games, we’ve gotten to the free-throw line a little bit more.”
The Scarlet Knights were all but assured a berth to their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991 when play was prematurely ended in March. They managed to carry over the momentum from their first winning season in 14 years into this winter.
Rutgers opened Big Ten competition with wins over Illinois and Maryland before falling to Ohio State. After a win over Purdue, the Scarlet Knights nearly upset Iowa before losing, 77-75, on Saturday.
“They mix it up. They play hard,” Izzo said. “You gotta love that about them.”
Junior Ron Harper Jr. leads Rutgers and ranks third in the Big Ten at 22.1 points a game, and the 6-6 swingman also grabs 7.0 rebounds while shooting 48.3% from 3-point range. He is one of four starters scoring in double figures, with 6-2 senior Jacob Young posting 15.7 points while ranking third in the conference with 5.2 assists a game. Junior guard Montez Mathis (15.3 ppg) and senior Geo Baker (10.2) are joined in the starting group with 6-11 junior center Myles Johnson, whose 8.7 rebounds are fourth in the league and go with 8.0 points a game.
Rutgers has never beaten MSU in 10 previous meetings. The Spartans won the only game last season, 77-65, in Piscataway, New Jersey. They are scheduled to return to Rutgers Athletic Center on Jan. 28.
The Scarlet Knights and coach Steve Pikiell’s program building remind Izzo of some of his best teams in his early years with the Spartans. MSU’s defensive struggles on the perimeter, however, again prove problematic against Rutgers’ more experienced guards in what should be a back-and-forth, up-and-down game. Pick: Rutgers 82, MSU 77.