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Michigan State expects rust, seeks response as it re-enters Big Ten fray vs. Rutgers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Believe it or not, Michigan State is about to get back on the court.

After a layoff that will have lasted 20 days as the program battled a rash of COVID-19 cases, the Spartans are set to take on Rutgers at 7 p.m. Thursday, nearly three weeks since they last played in a one-point loss at home to Purdue on Jan. 8.

The last time Joey Hauser (pictured) and Michigan State played Rutgers, the Spartans rolled to a 68-45 victory.

“It’s been hard,” junior Joey Hauser admitted. “We've been able to get some workouts in here and there, get some shots up, but I was mainly trying to stay healthy and be safe with this whole thing going on. So it's been a little bit difficult, but some of us got to rest our bodies a little bit.

“Right now, the biggest thing is trying to get in conditioning again and be able to go and play a game again.”

That’s no small feat for Michigan State, which was forced to limit their practices to small group and individual workouts for the bulk of the last three weeks.

The problems began two days after the Purdue loss when freshman Mady Sissoko tested positive, and continued with the positive tests of sophomore Steven Izzo and senior Joshua Langford over the next few days. It was on Jan. 13, the day Langford tested positive and just as the team was getting set to leave for a game at Iowa the next night, that the Spartans last practiced as a team, a drought that finally ended on Monday.

Along the way, two more players — first freshman Davis Smith then junior Gabe Brown — tested positive, while associate head coach Dane Fife and two more staffers also tested positive. It led to three games being postponed and plenty of down time for a team that was champing at the bit to get back to game action after a bitter defeat in its last outing.

“I think it was all just really weird,” sophomore Malik Hall said. “When we first found out when we were about to leave for Iowa, it was kind of like something surreal. We'd seen it happen to other teams across country, and then it happened to us. For us, it was just a couple of days off and then we came back.

“And Coach was just talking about, ‘Just be ready for whenever your next game is and make sure that you're mentally prepared, because we are still in season.’”

It’s a season that Michigan State (8-4, 2-4 Big Ten) is desperate to get turned around. After going unbeaten in nonconference play and rising to a No. 4 national ranking, the Spartans lost their first three Big Ten games before getting wins over Nebraska and Rutgers. It looked like they were on their way to three in a row with a 17-point, second-half lead against Purdue, only to watch that evaporate.

Add in the three-week break and some uncertainty of who will be available and how the layoff has affected the rest of the team, it’s fair to wonder how likely it is the Spartans string together some wins with the next three games all coming on the road.

“If I had to tell you how our guys are going to respond,” Izzo said, posing the question to himself. “If I look at practice, they’ve practiced hard, they've been focused. How they responded 20 days from playing the last game? Only time is going to tell, but I will approach it like kind of a second season, kind of a new start.

“We’re 0-0 in January and we'll go from there.”

Michigan State will be facing a Rutgers team it beat easily in the last meeting, a 68-45 MSU victory on Jan. 5. That game was the second of five straight losses for the Scarlet Knights (8-6, 4-6).

Rutgers ended that skid over the weekend with a four-point win at Indiana, and now looks to beat Michigan State for the first time in program history.

“You move on to the next challenge,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “Michigan State is coming up so you get through one obstacle and add another one. Obviously, when you play a Hall of Fame coach in the program that Michigan State has been, it will keep you up at night. We have not had any success against this program so it'll be a really good test for us.

“I like the way we played against Indiana, I like the way we kind of bounced back and we got to keep that.”

For two teams that entered the season expecting to compete for the Big Ten championship, getting a win on Thursday will be critical.

The Spartans accept there will be some rust to knock off, but they aren’t making any excuses.

“I definitely believe it's all a mental aspect,” Hall said. “We all know we're not going to be 100% perfect when we get back out there, and there'll be people missing shots and game conditioning will definitely be a little bit different than practices. But if we're mentally prepared and mentally willing to fight for the game and come up with our best effort, then I think it'll be good for us.”

Michigan State at Rutgers

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, New Jersey

TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 8-4, 2-4 Big Ten; Rutgers 8-6, 4-6

Outlook: Michigan State has won all 11 meetings in the series. … Michigan State will be without junior Gabe Brown because of COVID-19 issues, while freshman Mady Sissoko and senior Joshua Langford are questionable. … Junior Ron Harper Jr. is sixth in the Big Ten in scoring and leads the Scarlet Knights at 18.3 points per game ... Rutgers in 10th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (73.4 ppg) and eighth in scoring defense (71.1 ppg).

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau