Make no mistake, this is not the Rutgers of old. Taking on the style of the early Izzo teams, The RAC was rocking and Rutgers played a great ball game. It used to be a trip to the suburbs of Gotham was a gimme on the schedule. Those days are over.
Izzo said of the improving Scarlett Knights and the atmosphere here tonight that, “I’ve been a Steve Pikiell fan since the day he came into the league. I really appreciate where this program is going. It’s good for the Big Ten, it’s good for us. The fans tonight were awesome. He’s building something, and I hope all the fans and I hope the media take light of it because it’s a competitive team.”
Izzo added of the Scarlett Knights improving program that, “That’s one thing I always do when you’ve been in the league as long as I have, when the teams that were on the bottom. I say were with them because they’re not a bottom team. I watched them play Miami. They’re a team that’s got to learn how to win. They won one big game and it’s hard to come back, talk about tough travel. I don’t know what time they got back but then they had a one-day prep and that’s tough. And it’s tougher for a younger team that hasn’t done the things. But this guy here is a hell of a coach and a class person, so I think they’re definitely on the way up. I really appreciated the way their fans got on me a little bit and then at the end were great about it. This place is starting to come as they get facilities now and they got the right guy, I could tell you that.”
The Spartans were led by PG Cassius Winston who had 22 points and six assists. Add to his stat line that he only had no turnovers. Nick Ward added 20 points and five assists and Joshua Langford put in 14 points, had four rebounds, two assists and was a defensive juggernaut. But unsung hero was Xavier Tillman who had s11 points and eight rebounds and made a myriad of defensive and offensive plays that will never see the light of day on a stat sheet.
It was my opinion that this was the most complete game of Tillman’s short college career. He agreed, “I would say offense, defense, rebounding, yeah, I think it was my most complete game in college so far.”
Tom Izzo said of the game, “I thought our guys competed tonight. I thought they blitzed us early a little bit. But I thought we shot pretty well. We went into the game, as everybody follows us, we averaged 100 turnovers a game in the last four games, and that was a key. We only had two at halftime and seven for the game. That was one big goal. We wanted to defend without fouling, they got to the free throw line 16 times. We had 16 fouls. We’ve been averaging 23. That was two big goals. We felt like we had to out-rebound them even though they were big, and we did that. We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. It wasn’t pretty because they can play and they are good.”
The Spartans shot 47% from the field including 31% from the three. The Spartans shot a much improved 76% from the free throw line and had 11 assists on 27 baskets.
Rutgers Coach Steve Pikiell who is lauded as a great coach in the midst of a tough rebuilding job said of the contest, “It was a great environment. I want to thank our fans and students for coming. We obviously played an elite team with one day to prepare. We played hard. You have to be elite when you are playing them, They are the most physical team in the league. They were able to force their will on us on the first four minutes of the second half and score some easy baskets. They are well coached. Coach (Tom) Izzo is a Hall of Famer and he does a great job with great players so credit to them.”
Izzo said of the magnitude of this win, “Put it this way, this was a big win for us. Coming on the road, under the circumstances we’ve been under, and playing against a good quality tough team. I consider this not a ‘win, get out of here.’ I consider this we beat a good team and a good program in a tough place to play.”
Rutgers Coach Steve Pikiell added, “You just have to play at an elite level. We would have liked a couple of days to prepare, it’s tough when you get back at 3 AM from our trip to Miami, but we had our chances. We played well in spurts, but you have to play full 40 minutes against a team that should be ranked in the Top-5. They have a lot of weapons, good shooters, and ball handlers. I thought (Cassius) Winston was un-guardable at times and was just a tremendous job today. (Nick) Ward caused trouble inside. We got into some foul trouble, so they are a very good team. You have to be fully rested and well prepared to win against a team like that.”
The Spartans led the battle of the boards 40-36. More important the Spartans only had seven turnovers.
Izzo played nine players including three of the five freshmen. Aaron Henry led the freshmen with five points and five rebounds.
Izzo added, “I’m still questioning these Big Ten games this early, personally. Nothing bad, it just makes it so hard to fit games into your schedule. This is brutal for our guys. I think [Pikiell’s] quick turnaround, winning a big game after building this program up, they didn’t even get a chance to tell him ‘well now you’ve got to get back down to earth,’ so that probably hurt them a little bit.”
Pikiell and Izzo had a lengthy conversation at halfcourt after the game. Izzo, the dean of Big Ten coaches told the rising star, “I said, ‘I know you’re disappointed and you didn’t play as good as I thought you played the other night, to be very honest with you, I know you had a great start. But look what you’ve done to this place.’ I came here when it was just you guys (the media) and who the hell wants the media to watch a game, no insult intended. You had a damn good crowd, there was kind of a buzz even around the hotel. I watched their game the other night. They played good against a pretty good team. I just told him to hang in there and his program is on the rise. It’s not looking to be good down the road. They’re going to win some games here and I think they’re going to win some games on the road because he reminds me of some of my teams I had early in my career. Tougher than nails looks like a bunch of football players that can play. Personally, I love that and I think that helps you win on the road some, too.”
But Izzo saved the highest pride of the night for his team. Who has played a brutal schedule of games that mimic the NBA far more than college. “I want to give credit to my team. We’re on four games in eight days, traveling all over the world, stretch without our key defensive player, Matt McQuaid, who plays 31 minutes a game.”
The Spartans return to action against Iowa on Monday at 6:30 PM back home in East Lansing at the Breslin Center. That game can be seen on FS1.
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