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Maryland men's basketball vs. Michigan State preview

The Terps have a shot to grab first place in the Big Ten standings Monday night.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland men's basketball has been on a roll, winning seven straight games, but will face its toughest conference test so far on Monday night. The Terps will go into the Breslin Center on Martin Luther King Day to take on No. 6 Michigan State.

Maryland’s confidence is at an all-time high, and the Terps have won three straight road games after a 14-point win at Ohio State on Friday. Anthony Cowan Jr. continues to excel in the second half, and Bruno Fernando notched his 10th double-double of the season the last time out.

Michigan State has barely missed a beat since Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. went to the NBA last spring. In their place, a trio of juniors has fully taken the reins and reeled off 11 consecutive wins since a Nov. 27 overtime loss to Louisville. The Spartans will likely still be without Joshua Langford, who's missed five games with a foot injury.

The Terps are 5-8 all-time against the Spartans, going 3-5 since joining the conference in 2014. After Wisconsin handed Michigan its first loss of the season on Saturday, a Maryland win would give it sole possession of the conference lead. It's another 6:30 p.m ET start for the Terps on Monday night.

No. 6 Michigan State Spartans (16-2, 7-0 Big Ten)

2017-18 record: 30-5, 16-2

Head coach Tom Izzo is in his 24th season as a head coach, all with the Spartans, and coming off a regular season title. During his tenure, Michigan State has won 588 games, made seven Final Fours and captured a national championship in 2000. He's currently enjoying the benefits of a veteran team, getting to slowly bring up a top-25 freshman class, that ranks fourth in the conference.

Players to know

Cassius Winston, junior, guard, 6’0/185, No. 5. The junior is leading the conference in assists at 7.3 per night, which is tied for fourth in the nation. He's also taken over the scoring load, dropping in 18.2 points, shooting 45.2 percent from three and snatching 1.1 steals per game.

Nick Ward, junior, forward, 6’8/250, No. 44. Ward returned for his junior season after testing the process last offseason, and it's clearly helped. He's been a consistent force in the frontcourt, averaging 16.2 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. He’ll be a load to handle in the post.

Xavier Tillman, sophomore, forward, 6’8/260, No. 23. The sophomore has taken on a larger role off the bench this season. Tillman's an explosive player, and is averaging 8.3 points, 7.7 boards and a team-high 1.6 blocks in 21.3 minutes per game. He hasn't started a single game, but is used similarly to Ward and has been an effective rim protector.

Langford is averaging 15 points per game and shooting 40 percent from long range, but will likely miss this contest. It’s still a deep team, though, with veteran role players like Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins and Kyle Ahrens all making a consistent impact.

Strengths

Sharing the ball. The Spartans have the most assists in college basketball, averaging 20.7 dimes per game. While they’re led by Winston’s conference-leading amount, five players average at least two assists per game. 41.6 percent of Winston’s possessions end in assists, a top-10 rate in the nation, per KenPom.

Weaknesses

Forcing turnovers. It’s a relatively small facet of the game, but the Spartans have one of the lowest opponent turnover rates in the nation, according to KenPom. Only 14.8 of its opponents’ possessions end in turnovers, which ranks 348th of 353 Division I teams. (For what it’s worth, Maryland isn’t much better, forcing turnovers just 15.8 percent of the time, putting the Terps 321st.)

Three things to know

1. Can the Terps keep up their road streak? Maryland has played impressively on the road since the calendar turned. The Terps have three double-digit road wins in the new year, surviving a 10-minute onslaught from Rutgers, turning a close Minnesota game to a blowout and controlling most of the Ohio State game. Michigan State will be a different type of contest, but if Maryland can stay close, it should have a chance at the end.

2. What shape is Eric Ayala in? Maryland played the last 12 minutes against Ohio State without Ayala, who landed hard on his hip after a block. After the game, both Ayala and head coach Mark Turgeon said he should be good to go Monday—Turgeon said he’d be “ready to go” on a conference call Sunday—but whether he’s 100 percent is a different question. Ayala has started all but one game this season, but it would not be surprising if he came off the bench Monday. Aaron Wiggins would almost surely start in his place in that instance.

3. The battle of the bigs. While Maryland’s frontcourt of Fernando and Jalen Smith have the height advantage over Ward, Tillman and Goins, it should be a true battle in the paint. Fernando and Ward should be an exciting matchup, while Tillman holds the strength advantage over Smith. Smith’s length has given plenty problems this year, but Goins is the Spartans’ leading rebounder at 6’6, with 9.5 boards a night. This game could be decided in the paint.

Predictions

KenPom: Michigan State 80, Maryland 70

Me: Michigan State 77, Maryland 73