PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The 2017-18 season introduced a new conference play format for the Big Ten Conference.
Teams now play a pair of conference games in the month of December, as the conference tournament was moved up a week. Instead of finishing on the afternoon of Selection Sunday, as it has done in the past, the Big Ten Tournament will now finish a week prior to the field being announced for the NCAA Tournament.
With the changes, teams from the Big Ten played their first two conference games from Saturday through to Tuesday night. It gave fans some insight into how their teams stack up against conference foes, serving as a good measuring stick moving forwards.
On Sunday, the Michigan State Spartans opened up Big Ten play with a big home win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 86-57. The Spartans’ opponent on Tuesday, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, weren’t as successful in their Big Ten opener.
Rutgers fell to the Minnesota Golden Gophers on the road, 89-67, extending their losing streak to two games in the process.
Tuesday night saw two teams going in different directions match up with one another. The Spartans had won six straight games after a loss in the Champions Classic, while Rutgers had lost two straight after a 6-0 start.
It was an even first half, as the teams were tied at 26-all at the break. In the second frame, Michigan State pulled away down the stretch, extending their winning streak to seven with a 62-52 win over the host Scarlet Knights.
Miles Bridges led all scorers with 21 points on the night, to go along with five assists. Freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. added 11 points and eight blocks.
Jackson’s eight blocks tied a single-game record for Michigan State.
Deshawn Freeman scored a team-high 13 points for Rutgers, while star guard Corey Sanders was held to just six points on 2-of-15 shooting.
After a strong start to the season, Michigan State was due for an off night. Tuesday night was that night, and it almost cost the Spartans in the end. The Scarlet Knights held the Spartans to a season-low 62 points on a season-worst 38.6% shooting from the floor.
Fortunately for the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights weren’t able to capitalize. Rutgers shot a dismal 25.8% from the floor, and 26.7% from three point range. The Scarlet Knights grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, but were unable to make the Spartans pay.
Rutgers opened the game by scoring the first eight points, much to the delight and surprise of their home fans. Then, the Spartans found their groove, and the visitors went on a 19-4 run that saw Bridges score the final eight points.
The teams went into the break all tied at 26-all, and while Rutgers did their best to hang around in the second frame, they weren’t able to pull off the upset win.
Eugene Omoruyi got a layup to fall with under 14 minutes to play that gave the home side a slim 35-34 lead. Michigan State was quick to respond, as they scored the next eight points to take a 42-35 lead.
Later, with the score at 45-43 in favour of the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights had another chance to take a lead. Mike Williams missed a three pointer with just under eight minutes to play, and Jackson scored four straight for the Spartans to push the lead back to six points.
Down the stretch, Michigan State did enough to keep Rutgers at a safe distance. The Spartans, who were playing their third game in a six-day span, came away with the 10-point win, 62-52.
Defense wins championships, and Michigan State (8-1, 2-0) came into the night with the nation’s leading defense in terms of field goal percentage (34.2%). The Spartans get a few days of much-needed rest before they host the Southern Utah Thunderbirds on Saturday in East Lansing.
After opening the season with six straight wins, Rutgers (6-3, 0-2) have now lost three straight contests to top-caliber teams. The Scarlet Knights host the NJIT Highlanders on Wednesday night in Piscataway.
– T. Bennett