Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said freshman guard Rocket Watts will miss the Spartans’ Big Ten opener Sunday against Rutgers. Filmed Dec. 6, 2019.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo worked his players hard in practice Friday, with a reminder of their failure as motivation above their heads.
On the ribbon scoreboard remained the Duke logo. Staring down, taunting, demanding they understand the need to improve and be consistent as Big Ten play begins.
“I was disappointed in the way we played. And looking at the film, I was even more disappointed,” Izzo said Friday. “I do not think we are doing the little things.”
The Spartans (5-3) host Rutgers (6-2) at 7 p.m. Sunday (BTN). Here is a preview of the conference opener for both teams.
The eighth-ranked Blue Devils came in to Breslin Center on Tuesday and bullied No. 12 MSU around early and often, much more so than the 87-75 final indicated.
[ Rocket Watts out for Michigan State’s Big Ten opener, may miss more time ]
When Izzo’s players reviewed the game, it became clear where their problems were.
“(The Blue Devils) came here with a purpose, and we didn’t play with a purpose. They came on our court determined,” sophomore Aaron Henry said. “And one of those things we didn’t do is compete. And that’s what this program is all about — competing, playing hard and being tough. We didn’t do that at all.”
Dec 3, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tre Jones (3) is defended by Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry (11) during the first half of a game at Breslin Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)
The preseason No. 1 team in both the USA Today coaches and Associated Press polls, the Spartans have struggled physically with the indefinite loss of senior Joshua Langford (foot) and emotionally with the death of Cassius Winston’s brother Zachary.
It started with a Champions Classic loss to then-No. 2 Kentucky, followed by the long trip to the Maui Invitational, where they lost to unranked Virginia Tech. They returned and got hammered in the hyped game against with Duke.
Still, Izzo is focusing on the positives, but he sees a need for better defense and rebounding as he tries to create a playing rotation.
“We gotta shoot the ball a little bit better,” he said. “But we’re still scoring 80 points a game. And 80 points a game is a lot of points. We should win 95% of our games. Our defense must improve a little bit, we gotta do that.”
Michigan State’s Marcus Bingham Jr. celebrates with Gabe Brown during the first half Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019 at the Breslin Center. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Freshman Rocket Watts will be out at least for Sunday’s game, possibly longer, with what Izzo termed “a stress reaction.” The starting shooting guard had a boot on his left foot Friday.
That leaves Izzo with even fewer bodies to rotate. Henry will slide from the wing into Watts’ spot, with fellow sophomore Gabe Brown moving into the starting lineup for the second time this season on the wing. Foster Loyer also likely will need to play more minutes both as Winston’s backup point guard and as another option off the ball next to the senior All-American on the thin perimeter. Former walk-on Conner George, a senior, also could see time backing up Henry.
The need for Henry at shooting guard also opens more minutes at small forward. Injuries have limited Kyle Ahrens, but Izzo said he and the senior had a talk Friday to work on expanding his role beyond the 13.0 minutes he has averaged in the first eight games.
“I think Kyle could be a (Matt) McQuaid” this season,” Izzo said. “He went from playing 19 minutes at this time last year and averaging almost seven points to now he’s playing 13 minutes and averaging three points. Some of it was he missed two different times because of the injuries of the leg and the back. But I think Kyle is a guy that can really step up, and Gabe is a guy who can really step up right now.”
Dec 3, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) blocks the shot of Duke Blue Devils center Vernon Carey Jr. (1) during the first half of a game at Breslin Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)
Lots of length
One thing moving Brown into the lineup does for MSU is increase the overall length both on defense and the boards.
Henry is 6-foot-6 compared to the 6-2 Watts. Brown is 6-7, and sophomore forward Marcus Bingham, who started the past three games, is 6-11. Add junior forward Xavier Tillman’s 6-8 frame and long wingspan, and the starting lineup theoretically can be a disruptive force.
“It makes it tough on an offense to get a shot up or drive in a gap with our hands up … and then get a steal, and we’re running,” Bingham said. “Same thing with rebounding. If we’re in the gap, we can cut our guy out with the way we move and our length, and we can get rebounds easier.”
Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo on the bench Sunday, November 10, 2019 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Rutgers is led by 6-6 sophomore wing Ron Harper Jr. (13.3 points, 6.6 rebounds) and 6-4 junior guard Geo Baker (13.0 points, 4.3 assists). However, the Scarlet Knights have five other players averaging between 6.8 and 9.0 points and have gone with a nine-deep rotation.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Brown said. “They can run. They got really good players that improved from last year to this year.”
MSU has not lost to Rutgers in nine meetings, but in the four meetings the past two years, they have been decided by 11 or fewer points.
Izzo has been trying to light a fire under Henry, whom the Spartans need to respond to the challenge as he did during a consistent NCAA tournament run. But the others in the big three — Winston and Tillman — need to guide the way as their third finds his way with both a new role and now a new position. MSU 78, Rutgers 68