Rutgers gets another rugged test vs. Michigan State

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said the “schedule gods blessed us” by having his Scarlet Knights open Big Ten play by facing two ranked teams in three days.

Rutgers (6-2, 0-1 Big Ten) dropped an 89-67 decision at No. 14 Minnesota on Sunday and faces No. 3 Michigan State (7-1, 1-0) on Tuesday at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

The early two-game start to conference play is due to the Big Ten tournament being moved up a week so it can be held at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“It’s a great opportunity to play the best team at home,” Pikiell admitted. “You look at the schedule as it comes and try to play your best basketball. Those are the things you can control.

“Certainly we got the toughest test in the league right now. These teams are playing at an elite level.”

The trip to New Jersey will be Michigan State’s first true road game this season. The Spartans were just 2-7 away from Breslin Center last season, including 2-6 in the Big Ten.

“It’ll be a tough turnaround, but a big game for us,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “If you have aspirations of winning the conference, these are the kind of games you got to win.

“These are sometimes harder to win than bigger games. We’re going to go out there and try to stay as fresh as we can and see what we can do.”

The Spartans lead the series 5-0 and have won all four meetings since Rutgers joined the Big Ten. Michigan State has enjoyed an average margin of victory of 28.5 points in the four conference games. Izzo’s team has scored at least 90 points in each of the last three games between the schools.

The Spartans rank first in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 34.2 percent, just ahead of Valparaiso (34.3). Only Notre Dame and Stony Brook have made more than 40 percent of their shots against them.

Michigan State sophomores Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward have accounted for 66.3 percent of the team’s scoring, 42.6 percent of its rebounds and 56.4 percent of the team’s assists.

While Michigan State’s starters have scored the bulk of the points, the team’s depth has been a factor. Ten Spartans average more than 10 minutes per game while 12 average more than five minutes. Six different players have led Michigan State in scoring and three different players have led the team in rebounding

The Spartans are averaging 15.1 points off the bench, led by Matt McQuaid (6.0 points).

Junior guard Corey Sanders leads Rutgers with 12.6 points and 3.9 assists while adding 4.8 rebounds. He is one of four players scoring in double figures, joined by freshman guard Geo Baker (11.5 ppg), senior forward Deshawn Freeman (11.4 ppg,) and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi (10.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

Freeman ranks third in the Big Ten in rebounding and Rutgers is second in the conference in rebounding margin (plus-11.3), trailing only Michigan State.

The Scarlet Knights lead the league in scoring defense (56.3 ppg) and rank second in the conference in field goal percentage defense (36.5).

In his weekly conference call, Pikiell made a plea to the Rutgers students.

“Our players are excited and play better when the students are there,” Pikielll said. “I hope we have a tremendous turnout and make the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center) a tough place to play, because we’re going to need everybody.”