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Michigan State basketball: Key factors and a prediction vs. Rutgers

Will MSU squeak out a win at MSG?

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Michigan State basketball
© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State basketball will head to Madison Square Garden for a huge matchup with a pesky Rutgers team on Saturday.

Michigan State basketball and Scarlet Knights will meet for the second time this season at the world’s most famous arena in New York City. Michigan State won the first matchup in East Lansing 70-57.

Let’s discuss what will be important in round two.

1. The three-ball

The first matchup between these two teams on Jan. 19 was a great example of how the three-point shot can be the great equalizer in basketball. MSU and Rutgers shot 42 percent from two while turning it over 10 and 11 times, respectively. Rutgers shot eight more free throws and committed five fewer fouls.

The Scarlet Knights abused the Spartans on the glass – 42-34. Yet, Rutgers lost by double digits because Michigan State hit 12 3-pointers compared to just two for Rutgers. It’s hard to win when you get outscored 36-6 from the 3-point line. This is a Rutgers team that struggles to shoot the ball, converting just 32.7 percent of their 3-point attempts on the season.

Believe it or not, though, Michigan State may have had something to do with that performance earlier in the season. The Spartans currently lead the Big Ten in 3-point shooting defense. Opponents are making just 29.6 percent of their attempts against MSU. So, while that terrible shooting performance from Rutgers is likely an outlier, the Scarlet Knights shouldn’t expect to see a vast improvement.

Michigan State, meanwhile, is very reliant on shooting well to score. Three-point shooting percentage is about the only thing MSU has going for it from an offensive metrics standpoint. Keep in mind, this Rutgers defense currently ranks second in America in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating. Baskets will be hard to come by for MSU. It’s not simple enough to say, “whoever makes more threes will win,” but Rutgers will need to make more than they did on Jan. 19.

Conversely, for a struggling offense, Michigan State probably needs to hit as many – if not more – than they did in round one to come away with a victory.

2. Can Michigan State rebound?

As noted, Rutgers dominated the glass in the first matchup. Because the Rutgers offense generates a lot of missed shots, there are going to be plenty of chances for rebounds. This is a classic “something’s gotta give” scenario. Rutgers is second in the Big Ten in offensive rebound percentage, while Michigan State ranks second in defensive rebounding percentage. So it’s not surprising to see how well Rutgers rebounded in the first game.

It was surprising to see Michigan State give up so many offensive rebounds.

The Spartans should find some comfort in knowing that Malik Hall did not play on Jan. 19. His return should help on the glass. But they still have to be really concerned with Cliff Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell. The two combined for nine offensive boards. They can also do it from different areas on the floor. Omoruyi is going to bang down low in the post while McConnell is going to come crashing in from the perimeter. Neither is a particularly skilled offensive player, so second-chance points are where a lot of their production is going to come from. MSU’s ability to keep those two off the offensive glass will go in tandem with Rutgers’ ability to score.

Jaxon Kohler came up huge in the first meeting, scoring 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. It’s unlikely that Kohler can be as efficient as he was from the field (6-for-8 shooting), but Michigan State will absolutely need him to be as aggressive as he was rebounding. He and Mady Sissoko will be tasked with keeping Omoruyi in check.

3. Balance

These two teams are very similar in terms of their reliance on the collective over an individual. Both teams obviously need their best players to play well. But neither team is extremely reliant on one guy to carry them. For both teams, any number of guys has the potential to be that go-to guy in the second half.

We saw it in the first meeting when Michigan State got an unexpected game out of Jaxon Kohler.

It would not surprise any MSU fans to see A.J. Hoggard, Tyson Walker, Malik Hall, or Joey Hauser lead the team in scoring. For Rutgers, it’s a similar story with Omoruyi, Cam Spencer, Aundre Hyatt, or Paul Mulcahy. Both teams are at their best when they’re getting contributions from everyone, on both ends of the floor. Because of that, I think the coaching in this game is going to be crucial. Both coaches are going to have to recognize who has an advantage and who is playing well. They’re going to have to manage minutes in what should be a very physical game that will be littered with whistles.

The fact that I don’t give an edge to either coach in this matchup should say how much respect Steve Pikiell has earned. He’s taken a program that couldn’t sniff the NIT and turned them into a legitimate Big Ten force that should see consistent NCAA tournament bids.

Prediction

The projected line for this game is Rutgers -5, with a low total of 125. Michigan State got a huge break from the schedule gods for avoiding a trip to Jersey Mike’s arena. It ranks as the ninth-best home-court advantage in the country according to KenPom. Because of MSU’s alumni base, and the game being on a Saturday, this should be a true neutral site game. That’s significant because Rutgers has won just two games away from home this season.

Because of that, I’d expect this line to move toward MSU. I can’t see Rutgers giving any more than 3 or 3.5 by the time this game tips off.

I like Michigan State to cover the number and win this game outright for two reasons. First, Malik Hall. The Spartans didn’t have him the first go around and his presence should be crucial from an offensive and rebounding perspective. Second, turnovers. Michigan State’s guard play has made them less susceptible to turnovers this season. It’s a Rutgers defense that relies on turnovers for transition opportunities.

Offensively, the lack of a true point guard has Rutgers turning the ball over on 18 percent of its possessions in conference play. Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins, and A.J. Hoggard are good enough defensively to exploit this weakness.

As long as Michigan State can win the turnover battle and clean up their rebounding, I think they can steal a few extra possessions and hit enough shots to squeak out a win.

Final Score: Michigan State: 64, Rutgers: 62

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