Maryland men’s basketball’s road to a miracle in the Big Ten tournament has been revealed and it all starts this week at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. No. 10-seed Maryland will face off with No. 7-seed Michigan State in the second round on Thursday.
“Looking forward to postseason play,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “You work all year long to prepare for this moment and it’s here, it’s upon us. We know we have to go out and do whatever it takes to extend our season and that’s one game at a time. And that’s the beauty of March.”
This will be the third time this season that both of these teams have met. The Terps, who have come up winless against the Spartans on the road and in College Park, were fortunate to get the first-round bye heading into the tournament.
Maryland outlasted Penn State and Northwestern in February and late March to secure the 10th-seed in the Big Ten tournament. Because of Penn State’s loss to Rutgers in its regular-season finale, the Nittany Lions will be forced to play Minnesota in the first round on Wednesday as the 11th-seed.
Maryland finished the regular season with a 15-16 overall record and a 7-13 Big Ten record, a far cry from its original expectations that date back all the way to when Maryland’s highly-regarded offseason transfers rolled into the program. However, the Terps and Manning are getting set for the postseason having won four of their final six regular season games.
Let’s take a look at Maryland’s first matchup of the postseason.
Thursday, March 10, 6:30 p.m. ET, Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Maryland Sports Radio Network
Stream: Watch Fox Sports
How did they get here?
No. 10-seed Maryland Terrapins (15-16, 7-13 Big Ten)
Summarizing Maryland’s season in just one section might be a disservice to explaining the team’s current state, considering the immense changes that have occurred within the program since the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign.
The Terps opened up the season as the No. 21 team in the nation in the preseason AP top-25 poll.
Maryland’s first rut in the road came in the early-season five-point loss to George Mason. That defeat, along with questionable offensive play, sparked the beginning of the end of the Mark Turgeon era. Losses to Louisville and then Virginia Tech marked the end of Turgeon’s run as head coach with the team and Turgeon mutually parting ways.
Enter Manning, the new interim head coach and former assistant to Turgeon, but the same issues persisted with Maryland. Due to inconsistent performances and a bundle of close Big Ten losses later in the season, the Terps were teetering with a bottom-four finish in the conference. Maryland captured four wins in its final six games of the regular season to afford itself the 10th seed.
From starting the season ranked, to parting ways with its long-tenured head coach, to finishing below .500 in the regular season, it has been an arduous season for the program out of College Park.
It’s been a season of changing goals for Maryland, but it accomplished its most recent and outspoken goal of receiving a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. The Terps’ talented pieces are still intact even as the conference’s 10th seed. It’s just a matter of whether or not they will find a way to mesh in the postseason after 31 games in the regular season.
No. 7-seed Michigan State Spartans (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten)
Michigan State finished the 2021-22 season as the No. 43 team in the KenPom rankings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it came easy for the Spartans early in the season all the way back in November.
In the first half of the season, the Spartans had bouts with quite a few programs that are highly regarded nationally. Michigan State had to face teams like UConn, Kansas, Baylor and Loyola Chicago all before December rolled around.
The Spartans prevailed, albeit suffering predictable losses to stronger teams such as Kansas or Baylor. They started the season at 7-2 and didn’t stop from there. Michigan State ripped off nine consecutive wins from Dec. 1 to Jan. 12.
Wins against Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue highlighted the Spartans’ second-half success. They stumbled into the end of the regular season though, losing five of their final seven games.
What happened last time
Maryland had its chance to exact revenge on Michigan State at the Breslin Center in the final game of the regular season. The visitors were in the midst of a recent strong stretch of play, having won four of its past five games entering the Sunday matchup.
Still, Michigan State came out and punished the Terps from the get-go. A more-than-usual lackluster offense from Maryland allowed Michigan State to ride an 18-1 run to begin the game. Maryland had hit just one of its first 15 attempts from the floor in what was likely its coldest performance to start a game this season.
The Terps limped into halftime down 46-26 after shooting around 28% as a team. That also includes a 1-for-15 clip from deep in the first half in which Russell led Maryland with nine points.
Maryland had a solid response to kick off the second half, starting with 10 unanswered points to crawl back into the contest. The Spartans managed to bounce back though, halting the Terps’ momentum even though the score eventually reached just a three-point difference. Michigan State went on to put up 16 of the last 25 points to take the 77-67 win in East Lansing, Michigan.
Maryland had three players — Ayala, Russell and junior forward Donta Scott — score in double figures. Ayala, who led the Terps with 19 points, had a rejuvenated second-half effort with 17 points including five 3-pointers, but it wasn’t enough as Maryland’s record dropped to under .500 to close out the regular season.
“Energy coming out in the beginning, gotta be high, very high,” Scott said about what needs to change in the third matchup. “We gotta match their energy, we gotta fight and we gotta stick together.”
Three things to watch
1. Is the third time the charm for Maryland in the postseason? The Terps have yet to take down the Spartans this season, coming up short in each of the two games they met. The first one was a very competitive matchup, with Michigan State’s Malik Hall converting the go-ahead bucket with a few ticks left on the clock to take a two-point win. The second time around in the regular-season finale, Michigan State led for 39:52 of the full 40 minutes en route to a 77-67 win. Maryland will have an opportunity to upset the Spartans in its third try this season on Thursday. Luckily for Maryland, this matchup will have the most importance out of the three total games with Michigan State.
“We’re looking forward to playing a very talented team,” Manning said. “Playing them for the third time, we have a good feel for them... we have to make some adjustments based upon how the last game went. Can’t put ourselves in the type of hole that we put ourselves in the first half and then from there we have to go out there offensively, continue to be in attack mode and take good shots and have great transition defense.”
2. Can the Terps’ backcourt offer a consistent performance? Make no mistake, the spotlight will be on guards Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala. The Terps’ top backcourt duo leads the team in scoring this season, with both players averaging over 14 points per game. With each player receiving an average of over 32 minutes per game, Russell and Ayala will need to lift Maryland to a win against Michigan State. However, shooting the ball with consistency has been an issue for the experienced guards. Ayala is 22-for-55 from the floor over his last four showings, while Russell is 31-for-76 in his previous five games. Maryland’s two-most experienced guards will need to excel on both ends of the court if the program hopes to make an appearance in the quarterfinals.
3. How much will Maryland’s bench contribute? The Terps are typically a team that rolls out their starting five often over the course of 40 minutes as four players average at least 31 minutes per game. Maryland will desperately need impactful contributions from players like graduate guard Xavier Green, freshman forward Julian Reese and potentially guard Ian Martinez to put up consistent scoring against Michigan State. In the final game of the regular season, Maryland had just six bench points compared to the Spartans’ mark of 33 in the same category. It will need its depth to exceed expectations in the third matchup.
The road ahead
If Maryland finds a way to survive its third bout against Michigan State to open the postseason, it will still have a treacherous path to reaching the pinnacle of the Big Ten.
With a win over the Spartans on Thursday, the Terps would move on to face No. 2-seed Wisconsin on Friday night. Maryland only had one matchup with Wisconsin this season, when it was ranked as the No. 23 team in the country. The Badgers narrowly escaped the Terps’ upset bid back on Jan. 9, taking the 70-69 win out of College Park.
A victory in the quarterfinals over Wisconsin would send Maryland into the weekend with two wins. If it found a way to advance that far, which would already be considered a once in a blue moon situation, it would take on one of No. 14-seed Minnesota, No. 11-seed Penn State, No. 6-seed Ohio State or No. 3-seed Purdue in the semifinals and then another in the finals.
The full bracket for the 2022 Big Ten tournament will kick off Wednesday with the bottom-four seeds battling it out.