In front of a hostile crowd, Maryland (20-4, 10-3 B1G) has an opportunity to defeat Michigan State (17-8, 9-5 B1G) for the first time since March 4, 2017. The Terps are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, narrowly defeating Nebraska 72-70 on Tuesday. The Spartans now unranked after being ranked the preseason No. 1 are coming off an impressive 70-69 road win over No. 22 Illinois.
Last year when the Terps and Spartans met in East Lansing, at certain times Maryland seemed outmatched physically. In addition to struggling with the Spartans physicality, the Terps were a much younger team. This year is a different story, however. Maryland is much more experienced and understands how to play in a raucous atmosphere like the Breslin Center. Last year, including Jalen Smith, five of the Terps players had never competed against the Spartans before.
“Last year when we played [Michigan State], it let us know how far we were from being elite,” head coach Mark Turgeon said.
In last year’s meeting Jalen Smith finished with a measly six points and three rebounds, struggling with the Spartans size and physicality down low. However, this year, Smith has displayed his increased physicality on both ends of the floor, playing some of the best basketball of his career. “Stix” enters the highly anticipated matchup with seven consecutive double-doubles, displaying his ability as a premier rim protector and an outside shooting threat.
“From that game forward, we got a little bit more physical, especially ‘Stix”, Turgeon said. “Stix knew how far he had to come after that game, and you’ve seen him get a lot better and you’ve seen him improve so much during this year guarding big guys.”
Similar to Maryland, everything for the Spartans offensively starts with their senior leader point guard Cassius Winston. Winston is one of the best guards in the country. He thrives in the pick and roll, creating for himself and making plays for his teammates. In addition to Winston, Xavier Tillman presents a great challenge down low averaging a double-double. The key for Maryland will be ball screen defense, which has been a point of emphasis throughout this season.
“We all know Cassius is really good in ball screens and so are a lot of their other guards,” Cowan said. “It’s definitely going to be key and that’s definitely something we’ve been working on.”
While ball-screen defense will be a point of emphasis, so will transition defense. Similar to Maryland, the Spartans love to play fast and push the pace using their size and athleticism to their advantage. In last year’s meeting, the Spartans had 29 fast-break points, while the Terps mounted just nine.
Offensive balance will also be pivotal for the Terps, facing off against the Spartans who are one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten. With head coach Tom Izzo expected to game plan for Cowan and Jalen Smith, Darryl Morsell, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins will be vital as well. Wiggins performed well in last year’s meeting with 15 points and Ayala is coming off a season-high 16 points against the Cornhuskers. When Maryland’s complementary scorers are playing well, the Terps are at their best.
With College Gameday in East Lansing, tonight’s contest will be electric, and an opportunity for Maryland to continue displaying their growth.
“On the road, we need every last person to come together and do something positive,” Ayala said. “It would be a big statement for us to go up there and get a win.”