Michigan State looks to get on track in Big Ten opener vs. Rutgers

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Michigan State played a powerhouse schedule in the season’s first month, but don’t try convincing coach Tom Izzo that is the sole reason the Spartans find themselves scuffling as they prepare to begin Big Ten action.

No. 11 Michigan State tips off conference play at Sunday at home against Rutgers, desperately looking to build some sort of momentum after getting thoroughly dominated Tuesday at home against No. 10 Duke.

That loss came on the heels of a trip to Maui that included an unexpected loss to Virginia Tech, and the season began with a defeat against then-No. 2 Kentucky in New York. At 5-3 entering conference play, Michigan State doesn’t look like the preseason No. 1 team in the nation that it was.

After the loss to the Blue Devils, Izzo wasn’t exactly letting his team off the hook even though it also has dealt with the death of Zachary Winston, the 19-year-old brother of star senior guard Cassius Winston.

“There’s something you can see in the eyes of a person, and I saw it in (the Blue Devils’) eyes,” Izzo said after the Duke loss. “I didn’t see it in our eyes. … I can only tell you it’s been a hell of a month for a lot of reasons. Playing good people, playing on the road a lot. I mean, this was our third home game. There’re teams that never left their state. We didn’t do that, and maybe I am the dumb one, but is that a reason to miss free throws? Is that a reason to turn the ball over?”

Probably not, but Michigan State seems to have bigger issues than rebounding and turnovers. The Spartans have not defended well as the rotation continues to be a work in progress while the shooting outside of Winston has been inconsistent.

That’s led to teams throwing everything they can at Winston, and the preseason All-American is not getting a lot of help, at least not on the perimeter. Sophomores Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown have been hit and miss while freshman Rocket Watts is still shooting poorly.

“We have to figure out a way to get Aaron the ball,” Winston said. “He is a pretty good scorer, so we need to get him some more touches. Rocket is just getting his feel for things, and his rhythm and all that is going to come soon. Those are two pretty good options. We just have to figure out a way to get them going.”

Watts, however, is expected to miss the Sunday game against the Scarlet Knights due to a leg injury.

Getting Rutgers (6-2) at home to begin Big Ten play is usually a good thing, but the Scarlet Knights have been known to be a headache for the Spartans, typically pushing them harder than most. Rutgers won its first three games this season before losing to St. Bonaventure in Toronto. The Scarlet Knights responded with a win at home over Stephen F. Austin, the team that upset Duke six days later.

The Scarlet Knights lost on the road to Pittsburgh on Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, getting double-doubles from sophomores Myles Johnson (14 points, 14 rebounds) and Ron Harper Jr. (14, 10). Opening conference play away from home, Rutgers will be looking to get its first win over Michigan State in the teams’ ninth meeting.

“We have to continue to get better and learn,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “This is life on the road. When you’re competing against Big Ten and ACC teams, you have to play better.”

–Field Level Media

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