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Maryland men’s basketball at Michigan State preview (part two)

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Maryland finishes the regular season on the road this Sunday.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Maryland men’s basketball has just one regular season game remaining on its schedule before the Big Ten tournament begins in Indianapolis next Wednesday. This final game in Maryland’s long and chaotic season will be a rematch against Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan.

Maryland lost to Michigan State earlier this season at home when the Spartans hit a go-ahead layup with 1.9 seconds to go and walked out of College Park with a two-point victory.

A lot has changed for both teams since that night. Maryland is playing much better thanks to an offensive resurgence from guard Fatts Russell, who is averaging over 20 points per game in his last seven games.

The Terps have also relied on a balanced attack that includes, Hakim Hart, Donta Scott, Eric Ayala and their two big men: Julian Reese and Qudus Wahab. Maryland, particularly Wahab, had success inside the first time around against the Spartans — something the Terps will likely look to replicate.

Let’s take a look at the rematch that is set to begin on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. The game can be watched on CBS.

What happened last time

The last time these teams met was in College Park on Feb. 1 and it was an exciting affair. Maryland was in the middle of a five-game losing streak, its longest of the season. However, it had a keen opportunity to pull off an upset against the No. 13 team in the country at the time.

Maryland had a solid performance against the Spartans led by a balanced scoring attack and a dominant inside presence. Guard Eric Ayala was the leading scorer with 15 points while forward Donta Scott also had 14.

Maryland trailed by as many as 15 in the second half but had a ton of fight to rally back and tie the game at 63 with seconds remaining. Michigan State had possession with the game tied and the shot clock turned off. Spartan guard Malik Hall was able to turn the corner, get downhill and convert a layup with 1.9 to give Michigan State the lead and the win.

It had the potential to be Maryland’s best win of the season and its biggest upset of the year considering it trailed by double-digits for much of the game, but the Terps couldn't get the necessary defensive stop they needed to force overtime.

“We lost the game, but we did a lot of good things well,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “We scored the ball well in the paint, we rebounded the ball well, we did a lot of good things that we took away.”

What’s happened since

Maryland continued its losing streak after the loss to Michigan State — which eventually hit five games — before turning the tide and playing its best basketball of the season in late February and early March.

Maryland has won four of its last five games with wins over Nebraska, Penn State, then-No. 22 Ohio State and Minnesota. After some rough outings against Big Ten opponents early on in the season, Maryland has been much more competitive, albeit against some teams in the basement of the conference. The Terps have climbed in the standings as they currently sit in 10th place in the Big Ten.

The Spartans have gone in the opposite direction since they played Maryland, falling in the Big Ten standings and out of the AP top-25 poll. Michigan State is 2-7 since it came to College Park. The Spartans have faced a tough schedule but they were also upset by Penn State on Feb. 15. At a time when Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo usually has his teams playing their best basketball, this Spartans team is reeling.

Michigan State will enter the last game of the regular season having lost two straight to Michigan and Ohio State and currently sit in seventh place in the conference.

“What we've done the last five or six games has definitely given us some confidence,” Manning said. “We want to obviously continue that going into Michigan State and putting forth a great effort.”

Three things to watch

  1. Will Maryland avoid the first round of the Big Ten tournament? Maryland’s players haven't been shy about their desire to finish 10th in the conference standings and avoid the first round of the Big Ten tournament. The Terps control their own destiny. If they win, they are guaranteed the 10th seed. If they lose, then they need Penn State to lose its season finale to Rutgers in order to still secure the 10th seed. After Wednesday’s win over Minnesota, Russell talked about the difficulty of playing five games in five days and how if they can get the 10th seed, they would only need to play four games in four days to make a run at the Big Ten championship.

“For us, the opportunity to get a bye in the Big Ten tournament from how our season started is a nice step,” Manning said.

2. Can Fatts Russell keep up his tremendous play? One of the biggest differences between now and back when these teams played the first time on Feb. 1 is the resurgence of Russell’s play. Russell has been Maryland’s leading scorer the last month and brings tremendous energy on both ends of the floor. It took him some time to get adjusted to the Big Ten, but he has looked like one of the best point guards in the conference since. If Maryland can upset Michigan State, it will need another big performance from Russell.

3. Can Maryland avoid a losing season? This game doesn't just have implications for the Big Ten tournament, there are also historical consequences at play for the rich history of Maryland basketball. There is no doubt this is one of, if not the worst season Maryland basketball has experienced in the last generation. Maryland hasn't had a losing season in 28 years. The Terps are currently .500 and a loss to Michigan State makes it likely Maryland will secure its first losing season in over a quarter century. If Maryland can come away with a win in East Lansing, the Terps are guaranteed to finish .500 or above on the season.