Michigan St.-Rutgers Preview
When his team last took on Rutgers, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo complained about uncharacteristic defensive deficiencies overcome by an outstanding shooting effort.
That certainly hasn't been the trend entering a rematch with the low-scoring Scarlet Knights, who are expected to get a boost from the return of star Corey Sanders.
With two games left in the regular season, the second-ranked Spartans will try to win their fifth in a row and deal Rutgers a 32nd straight league defeat Wednesday night at the RAC.
Although his team shot 17 for 32 from 3-point range and outrebounded Rutgers 56-27, Izzo wasn't pleased with its defense in a 96-62 home win Jan. 31 even though it held the Scarlet Knights to 36.9 percent shooting. The Spartans have since tightened things up further, holding opponents to 35.7 percent during a four-game winning streak.
They continue to play well offensively, averaging 84.6 points on 49.4 percent shooting - including a 50.6 mark from 3-point range - in the last seven of an 8-1 stretch. Denzel Valentine has scored 23.4 per game and hit 20 of 41 from beyond the arc in his last five, while Bryn Forbes has averaged 19.7 points and made 15 of 24 from 3-point range over his past three.
Valentine missed his first six shots and Michigan State (24-5, 11-5) was off to a 3-of-15 start before connecting 14 of its next 18 in Sunday's 88-57 home win over Penn State. The Spartans also held the Nittany Lions to 32.2 percent shooting and outrebounded them 51-33.
Valentine is on pace to become the first player to average 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists since the NCAA started tracking assists in 1983-84.
After Indiana clinched the regular-season title outright on Tuesday, the Spartans are focused on making a run through the postseason. They lead the nation in 3-point percentage (43.3), assists (20.6), rebounding margin (plus-11.5) and defensive field-goal percentage (37.1).
That doesn't bode well for a Rutgers team that ranks 13th in the Big Ten with 67.3 points per game and at the bottom with a minus-6.6 rebounding margin. The squad is also allowing a league-high average of 80.4 points following Saturday's 98-59 loss at Northwestern.
"If we're going to try to keep getting better every day, we shouldn't worry about any other things but us and realize that we can't flip the switch on come tournament time," Izzo said.
The Scarlet Knights have dropped 31 in a row in conference play by an average of 18.6 points since a 67-62 home win over No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 11, 2015. With two games left, they're trying to avoid becoming the first Big Ten team to go winless since Northwestern in 1999-2000.
Rutgers (6-23, 0-16), though, will likely have Sanders back from a four-game suspension for violating team rules. The guard has been one of the team's few bright spots, leading all Big Ten freshmen in points per game (16.2) and ranking second in steals (1.6) and assists (4.1).
Fellow freshman Jonathan Laurent is averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds over his last four games.
"I think they'll be hungry for a victory," Izzo said. "We have to remember a year ago that Wisconsin was winning pretty regularly and all the sudden went out there and got beat."
The Spartans have won all three meetings. Forbes led the way with 18 points and went 4 of 6 from beyond the arc in a 71-51 win Jan. 29, 2015, in the last matchup in Piscataway.