On Wednesday, No. 10 Michigan State will open the doors to the Breslin Center to Rutgers for the second and final game in the season series.
However, the team that went to Piscataway and defeated the Scarlet Knights 78-67, is drastically different than the one that Rutgers will see in East Lansing. That team in Piscataway was buoyed by a 20-point, five-rebound performance from junior forward Nick Ward and 14 points from junior guard Joshua Langford.
This Spartan team will now have to play without both. First losing Langford during a meeting against Northwestern in January and now going without Ward following a fractured hand in the last game against Ohio State.
Without Ward and Langford, the matchup against Rutgers has suddenly become very interesting. Here’s the tale of the tape before the Spartans and Scarlet Knights take to the hardwood.
Before the Ohio State game, it seemed like the Spartans were on their way to figuring out how to navigate life without Josh Langford. They got a big 18-point performance from Matt McQuaid against Minnesota and Nick Ward seemed to be putting it all together as well, with 22 points against the Gophers and a defensive showcase against Wisconsin.
However, another injury, this time to Ward, will force them to adjust. If you’re head coach Tom Izzo, you can take some solace from the Ohio State game, as his team went on to rout the Buckeyes behind a lineup that included Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier, McQuaid, Kyle Ahrens and Kenny Goins.
Out of that lineup, Kithier is the most interesting, as he will be one of the guys called upon to fill in for Ward. The freshman has played double-digit minutes in three games so far this season but has been solid particularly on the defensive end. He even scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting in 18 minutes against Minnesota. Kithier has potential, with good hands and a knack for finishing around the rim, but he’s going to have to learn quickly if the Spartans want to keep going until Ward gets back.
The other guy Izzo will lean on is sophomore forward Xavier Tillman. Much like last season, Tillman has been a spark plug off the bench this year. He averages 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 61 percent from the field in 21 minutes per game. Although he’s not the post player Ward is, he’s one of the more effective screen-and-roll players on the team and should be able to give the Spartans a boost.
How the Spartans fill the hole left by Nick Ward will be the question in this matchup.
Life hasn’t been much easier for the Scarlet Knights either, as they lost their last game on a last-second prayer from 3-point range by Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp.
The loss hurts, but head coach Steve Pikiell and his staff have to be happy with how the team performed. After being at the bottom of the Big Ten for years, Rutgers looks like they have arrived somewhat.
The Rutgers defense was particularly impressive in the loss, holding Iowa to just 71 points. The Hawkeyes sit at the top of the Big Ten in scoring offense, averaging 81 points per game with the Scarlet Knights holding them 10 points below that.
The Scarlet Knights also forced 13 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 34-33. With no Nick Ward, they have to like their chances at being able to slow down another high powered offense. Offensively for Rutgers, it starts with junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, who is putting together a solid season averaging 13.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3-point range. Omoruyi is a talented scorer who is just as adept on the glass, if he can pull down the boards and keep the rebounding battle close, he would be doing his part to give Rutgers a chance.
The other guy the Scarlet Knights will need is sophomore guard Geo Baker. He averages 13 points per game to go along with four assists while shooting 35 percent from the field and 34 percent on 3-pointers.
Facing a shorthanded Spartans team, this could be the signature win Rutgers needs to really prove that they are a force in the Big Ten. For the Spartans, they need a win to stay alive in the Big Ten regular-season race before a Sunday meeting with Michigan. Before the season, not many would have seen Wednesday as a pretty big game, but this is a lot more than just another conference win.
Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on BTN.