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East Lansing — There's plenty to be critical about these days with the Michigan State basketball team.

In its last four games — road losses to Maryland and Nebraska and home victories over Northwestern and Penn State — the deficiencies have been abundant. The shooting has been streaky at best, turnovers began to creep up again against Nebraska, and the free-throw shooting has been the worst in the Big Ten.

But the one aspect that might be hurting Michigan State most as it heads into Thursday night's game at Rutgers is foul trouble. Through 20 games, the Spartans rank 214th in the nation with 18.9 fouls a game.

And while few have fouled out — seven all season — it has hampered the Spartans significantly.

"I think we just have to adjust," senior guard Travis Trice said. "You can't blame the refs. The refs are gonna call the game the way they want to call it. The players have to adjust. If you can get away with being more physical, then do it, but if the next game they're calling it tight, you have to adjust.

"We've got to be smart. Some of the fouls we're getting are fouls that are 30-40 feet from the bucket or we missed a shot and were going for an offensive rebound and tried to get a steal."

It hasn't helped that in the last couple seasons there has been an emphasis on touch fouls away from the basket. It has hurt man-to-man defensive teams like Michigan State, a team built on toughness.

Against Nebraska, Michigan State was called for 27 fouls, while four players had two each in the first half. Similar problems plagued the Spartans the last four games, sometimes early in those games.

It has coach Tom Izzo contemplating playing some zone, something that previously never would have been a possibility.

But, Izzo also believes zone defenses are helping slow the game down, something that was supposed to be remedied with the emphasis on fouls.

"I've seen more zone this year than I've seen in the history of the game," Izzo said. "And people wonder why scoring is down. When you zone somebody it takes longer to score, offenses are gonna be slower and I think we outfoxed ourselves a bit with the rule changes. We want to speed up the game and have more scoring and it has worked in the opposite.

"And what happens with the rule changes is the best players are on the bench."

That's the aspect that has hurt Michigan State.

Against Nebraska, centers Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello spent significant first-half minutes on the bench, as did guard Denzel Valentine. It has been a problem on and off all season, and usually leads to decisive runs late in the first half against the Spartans.

That happened at Nebraska and Maryland, and turned the Northwestern and Penn State games into nail-biters.

"I watched the film of the (Nebraska) game and I swear some things are to the point of everything being touch (fouls)," Izzo said. "(Valentine's) two fouls were unbelievable. We talk about all our problems and we've had a few, but more than anything we had four starters on the bench.

"When we're in a lot of foul trouble we don't play the kind of defense we used to play. ... But we need to do a better job."

And if Michigan State finds itself in that spot again tonight, don't be surprised if Izzo uses a bit of zone to overcome it. Michigan State will be challenged by Rutgers guard Miles Mack, who can get in the lane, and forward Kadeem Jack, who can score in the post.

"He is a really good player and definitely one of the keys to the game is to slow him down," Trice said of Mack. "They have good guys and are a solid team."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Michigan State at Rutgers

Tip-off: 6 p.m. Thursday, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: BTN/WJR

Records: Michigan State 13-7 (4-3 Big Ten), Rutgers 10-11 (2-6)

Outlook: This is only the second meeting between the teams, the first as members of the Big Ten. The last meeting was in the championship of the Lobo Invitational in Albuquerque in 1970. … Rutgers handed conference-leading Wisconsin its only Big Ten loss.

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