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Michigan State basketball looks for more boards as it builds on first Big Ten win

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

As head-scratching as Michigan State’s three-game skid to begin Big Ten play was, what was just as curious was the way the Spartans were getting beat.

They weren’t shooting the ball particularly well — the loss at Minnesota, especially — and they weren’t defending the way they were early in non-conference play.

Michigan State's Thomas Kithier pulls down a rebound last month against Western Michigan.

But the other issue that has crept up over the last couple of games, including the victory over Nebraska on Saturday, is the fact Michigan State has been outrebounded in two straight games, something that rarely happens. In fact, in 31 games last season, Michigan State was outrebounded just six times and ranked No. 10 in the country in total rebounds per game at 40.51.

Those numbers have dropped in 2020-21, with the Spartans averaging 38.7 rebounds a game, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten and 95th in the nation. Their rebounding margin sits at plus-5.1, good for fifth in the conference and 84th in the country.

Entering Tuesday night’s game against No. 15 Rutgers at the Breslin Center, getting tougher on the glass was a definite focus for coach Tom Izzo, but hardly a reason to panic.

“That has been one of our staples,” Izzo said, “but, it’s not like we're getting killed on the boards. And remember, everything's kind of screwed up by that Minnesota game where we take 70 shots and make 18. I think they got 100 rebounds that day and maybe more. So, that kind of distorts things a little bit, too.”

There’s no doubt about that. A quick glance at the box score would say Minnesota dominated the glass, grabbing 52 rebounds to Michigan State’s 36. However, 42 came on the defensive end as the Spartans clanged the ball of the rim 52 times. On the offensive end in that game, Michigan State held a 12-10 advantage.

Still, considering the Spartans were outrebounded Saturday at Nebraska — albeit by two — Izzo is doing what he can to get his team tougher on the glass while also understanding they haven’t had the time to work on it like they have in the past.

“I think it tells a lot about our program and the things we've done,” Izzo said “You guys have been at a million practices when we played the war game and some people say, ‘Well, that’s too physical,’ and this and that. Well, this year we didn't do it. We didn’t do it at all. From May, June, July, August, September … I mean, in October we still weren't allowed to have contact.

“So I think it reaffirms my belief that if you don't practice it, you don't do it.”

With the schedule picking up since the holidays, there won’t be a ton of time to practice moving forward, but that doesn’t mean Izzo won’t be pushing for more in the rebounding category.

Joey Hauser is rebounding well at a team-best 7.9 per game while Malik Hall, who had eight rebounds against Nebraska, has been solid on the glass. But Izzo expects more from his big men, as well as the likes of Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown.

“I think we'll get better at it, but some of it is we've been smaller,” Izzo said. “Some teams we've played have been bigger and some of it is we're not getting enough rebounding from our wings. Josh got one big one but had one rebound (against Nebraska). Aaron’s got to rebound more. We think Gabe Brown’s got to rebound, a lot better. Hauser been rebounding pretty well and actually, the guy who has been rebounding pretty well is Malik.

“So we need to get some of our big guys going a little bit on that, but I think for me it affirms that if you don't work on it, you’re not as good at it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau