Among the remaining games on Michigan State’s schedule, nobody had Rutgers in East Lansing circled as the most likely loss. But every single team in this league is dangerous, and the Scarlet Knights led by 11 early in the second half. As they have so many times, though, Tom Izzo’s squad pulled away late in the game, earning a half a game lead at the top of the Big Ten.
What did we learn, sports fans?
1. Xavier Tillman Is a More Than Capable Replacement for Nick Ward
With Ward out until March with a hand injury, the responsibility of banging on the low block fell to Tillman, who logged a season-high 33 minutes. A significant number of Michigan State fans have argued that Tillman might be a better option than Ward, and that argument was given fuel by Tillman’s 19 points, also a season best.
Tillman added 10 rebounds to complete the double-double, and he added an assist, a block, and a steal for good measure. Tillman is shooting a better percentage from two than any other player in the Big Ten, and it looks like having to carry a heavier load until Ward gets back isn’t going to hurt his efficiency too much.
Yes, it was against Rutgers, but going against Eugene Omoruyi is no easy feat.
2. Sparty Has the Best Legs in the Conference
How many times now have we watched Tom Izzo’s team get down or let a team hang around, only to catch up and/or pull away midway through the second half? Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, Nebraska (pre-injury) and now Rutgers. Credit Michigan State’s trainer and their offseason conditioning. Crashing the offensive glass and fast breaking off made baskets means going at full speed more often than most teams. The Spartan players have figured out how to go fast while keeping plenty of gas in the tank.
3. ...But a Very Thin Bench
With Tillman promoted to a starting spot, there’s not a lot of firepower once you get past Michigan State’s top five. The bench logged just 18% of available minutes last night, and contributed just two points. Consisting of Kyle Ahrens and four freshmen, there’s not a lot of experience or consistency among that group.
At this point, Michigan State is a couple of early fouls away from having to give big minutes to an untested player. That could play a factor as they face a final four games that includes two contests against in-state rival Michigan.
4. Rutgers Lost This Game on the Glass
We’ve talked a lot about Michigan State; let’s talk a little bit about Rutgers.
Somewhat surprisingly, Rutgers won the turnover battle, 11 to 14. They shot an equivalent percentage from the field. You might think that the difference in the game was the 20 points Michigan State scored from the line, versus just nine for Rutgers, and there’s something to that. But Rutgers doesn’t hang its hat on getting points at the line. They do typically hang their hat on rebounding. Last night, the Spartans out rebounded them by 15.
Nobody ever expected Rutgers to win this game, even when they were up 11. Steve Pikiell’s squad sits as one of four teams with five or fewer conference wins. Only one of those teams will avoid playing on Wednesday in Chicago. With winnable home games coming up against Minnesota and Penn State, there’s a decent shot that that one team is Rutgers. Given where the program has been, that would be a win in most people’s book.