Michigan State basketball picked up a big win over Rutgers on Tuesday night and there were plenty of encouraging signs. Let’s discuss them.
Michigan State has opened 2021 with a couple of much-needed wins to get them back on track.
In their most recent game against Rutgers, there were some subtle indicators that this team may be trending in the right direction.
Other than the 18 turnovers, there wasn’t much that MSU didn’t do well.
The pillars of Tom Izzo’s program and the foundation of its success stems from excellent rebounding and tenacious man-to-man defense. On Tuesday evening, the Spartans out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights 46-25. Joey Hauser led the way with 14 boards and the Spartans cleaned the glass all night long with tremendous effort and aggressiveness.
So many of the great Spartan teams throughout Izzo’s tenure have relentlessly rebounded the ball. Think back to big men such as Antonio Smith, Andre Hutson, Draymond Green, Xavier Tillman and others. Typically when they have players who attack the backboards efficiently, banners aren’t far behind.
Only one Big Ten team remains undefeated. There is a chance that if MSU stays hot, they can make a run at the regular season league crown or a Big Ten Tournament title. After that, the NCAA Tournament seems wide open as outside of the favorite Gonzaga, no other teams have been overly impressive. It’s anyone’s ballgame.
It’s been exciting to see the Spartans accumulate so many swats recently. Aaron Henry sticks to perimeter players like white on rice and his explosiveness as well as his athleticism help him block shots frequently. Marcus Bingham and Mady Sissoko have the length to alter and reject several attempts per contest.
Collectively, MSU’s defense against Rutgers was terrific as they denied eight shots, held them to 31 percent shooting from the field (while only allowing three 3-pointers), and smothered them overall to limit them to 45 points, which is 30 points less than their previous low total on the young season.
It’s safe to say that they were on the receiving end of an earful from the coaching staff during the holidays because their defensive intensity has been ratcheting up with each passing game.
3. The savvy veteran
While Aaron Henry has been remarkable (27 points and 20 points respectively in the past two contests), Joshua Langford has played just as critical of a role in helping the Spartans shake free from their late December 2020 funk. He quietly scored 15 points against Nebraska and followed that up with another double-digit scoring performance against Rutgers (with a smooth 11 points).
Langford has lost a step after multiple foot surgeries but he’s lethal from mid-range (a-la Rip Hamilton), which is a lost art in today’s game.
To be honest, he’s been productive enough this year to put himself in a position to play professional basketball at a high level once his college career is through, which is a testament to his determination considering all of the injuries he’s had to overcome. He is a steady, reliable, calming presence in the lineup and he has stepped up as the scoring of Rocket Watts and Hauser has dipped as of late. His leadership skills can’t be overlooked either.
Whether he’s gathering his teammates for a quick huddle between whistles or taking the younger players under his wing to share advice, he’s evolved into an extension of Izzo out on the floor.
4. The unspectacular power forward
Thomas Kithier is anything but electrifying but he seldom makes mistakes. He has been fantastic since the new year began. Against Nebraska he scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds. He then went on to snag seven rebounds vs. Rutgers.
He hasn’t missed a single shot in 2021, he pairs well with Hauser’s stretch-four skillset (for a nice inside-out big combo), sets solid screens to free up the likes of Henry and Watts at the top of the key as they prepare to slash and is a sound defender. He isn’t flashy as he’s more of a “meat and potatoes” guy but a lot of credit has to go to associate head coach Dwayne Stephens for developing the junior out of metro Detroit.
Kithier doesn’t have the brute strength or leaping ability of a Sissoko, the offensive tools that a Hauser does, the limbs that extend for days like Bingham, or the versatility of a Malik Hall but no argument can be made that he hasn’t made a positive impact in the past week to this club.
5. Improved shooting
Michigan State compiled a 47, 43, 84 percent line (field goal, three point, and free throw) vs. Rutgers. Getting stops on defense helps suck the life out of the opponent and in turn helps boost confidence heading back down the court. The swagger that we saw them exude while attacking on offense when they began the season 6-0 is starting to return.
6. Sharing the ball
Michigan State’s ball movement has been better since their ugly loss at Minnesota. The extra practice time lately, the insertion of A.J. Hoggard into the starting lineup (the freshman point guard is averaging 5.5 assists per game thus far in 2021), and their commitment to getting out on the fast break as much as possible have fueled a turnaround. The unselfish play has created clean looks for Spartan shooters as they were able to rack up 16 assists vs. Rutgers.
The ultimate goal is to clean up the turnovers while at the same time sustaining the other aspects that have helped spark a resurgence to ensure they can have a phenomenal final three months of the season.