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Maryland men’s basketball vs Michigan State preview

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Both teams enter on big win streaks after slow starts to the season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 21 Maryland at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Two of the hottest teams in the Big Ten will battle it out on Sunday afternoon in College Park, as Maryland men’s basketball welcomes Michigan State for a crucial late season tilt.

It’s been almost a week since the Terps last took the floor, when they defeated Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, 78-69, to win their fourth straight game and improve to 14-10. Maryland’s late season run has allowed it to climb out of the bottom of the conference standings, moving from 12th into eighth with three games remaining in the regular season.

Michigan State has been on an even more impressive tear as of late, positioning itself for another NCAA Tournament appearance just in the nick of time. Over their last three games, the Spartans have defeated Indiana, No. 5 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State, injecting their resume with two high-caliber wins while regaining some ground in the conference standings.

“They figured it out and they’re playing the way that everybody thought they were gonna play,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “They’ve been through a lot this year ... Nothing but respect for their players, their coaches, their program.”

The game tips at 2 p.m. and will be televised on CBS.

Michigan State Spartans (13-9, 7-9 Big Ten)

2019-20 record: 22-9, 14-6 Big Ten

Head coach Tom Izzo continues to deliver results for Michigan State, even in what seemed like a down year. Izzo’s legendary reputation speaks for itself; he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, has won eight National Coach of the Year awards, has made eight Final Four appearances and won the 2000 NCAA Tournament title.

He entered the 25th year of his Michigan State tenure having lost several key players from a season ago, including the likes of Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Kyle Ahrens. The Spartans began the 2020-21 season winning their first six games, but lost each of their first three Big Ten games.

Michigan State went on to start Big Ten play with just a 2-7 record after nine games, looking as though it would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a Big Ten record 22 seasons. But Izzo’s teams have always played their best basketball in March, and that has once again proved true this season.

Players to Know

Aaron Henry, junior forward, 6-foot-6, 210 lbs., No. 0 — After serving in a complementary role to Winston & Co. in his first two seasons in East Lansing, Henry has taken the reigns as the Spartans go-to offensive option this season. Henry’s 15.5 points per game paces Michigan State in scoring, pitching in 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest as well.

Henry has also been instrumental to the team’s recent win streak, averaging 21.6 points per game over that stretch.

Joshua Langford, redshirt senior guard, 6-foot-5, 200 lbs., No. 10 — Having suffered a devastating foot injury on Dec. 29, 2018, Langford made his return to the floor this season after missing the final 17 games of that season and all of last season. The 24-year-old guard’s scoring production has dipped since his last spell on the court, going from a career-high 15.0 points per game to just 10.0 this season.

But Langford’s defensive and leadership contributions go beyond the stat sheet, having been named Michigan State’s Defensive Player in 2017-18 and a team captain in each of the last three seasons.

“He’s a veteran in the league,” junior guard Eric Ayala said of Langford. “He has a nice balance of how to play, how the game’s gonna go ... He’s the head of the snake, and he’s been playing well for them too, so we just gotta contain those guys.”

Gabe Brown, junior forward, 6-foot-8, 210 lbs., No. 44 — While Henry and Langford have each played a significant role in Michigan State’s resurgence, Brown has also emerged as a key player in recent games as well. Having come off the bench for most of the season, Brown has averaged 31 minutes per game over the last three wins while starting in each of the last two.

Part of the reason why is his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Michigan State has committed to playing small-ball in the latter half of this season, with Brown’s 45.8% three-point shooting percentage lending itself well to that play style.

Strength

Assists. Despite losing its primary playmaker in Winston from a season ago, the Spartans haven’t missed a beat when it comes to setting up their teammates to score. Led by Henry, Rocket Watts and Foster Loyer, Michigan State has totaled 375 assists this season, good for 16th in the nation and second in the Big Ten.

Weakness

Three-point shooting. The Spartans have been severely inconsistent when it comes to their three-point shooting, having games where they’ve shot as high as 70% and as low as 20%. When Michigan State has converted on above 30% of its three-point attempts this season, the Spartans are 9-2, compared to just 4-6 when they shoot below 30%.

As a whole, Michigan State are shooting 33.3% from beyond the arc, checking in at 203rd in Division I and 11th in the Big Ten.

Three Things to Watch

1. Will Darryl Morsell play? The senior guard has been a warrior for the entirety of Maryland career, but could be held out for Sunday’s contest.

Morsell re-aggravated a shoulder injury in the team’s last game against Rutgers, which he managed to play through, but he has been resting all week since. Sunday’s game is certainly an important one, but whether the coaching staff risks putting him out there with still so much left to play for this season will be a game-time decision.

“He’s been bringing energy and everybody’s been feeling off where he’s been giving,” sophomore forward Donta Scott said. “...Even on the defensive end, his energy trickles down and helps all of us.”

2. Which small ball team will come out on top? Sunday’s meeting will feature two teams that primarily play small ball and prefer to stretch the floor as much as possible, rather than playing against an opponent with a more traditional big man that can be taken advantage of. Which team can execute small-ball could be a deciding factor on Sunday, with the first team that is forced to adjust to a different style of play likely coming out on the wrong.

3. This could be the most physical game of the season. Playing physical basketball, especially on the defensive end, has been Maryland’s calling card during the back half of this season, relying on its defense to win games for them time and and time again. But expect Michigan State to be able to match that energy, and possibly then some.

The Spartans have turned up their level of physicality and aggressiveness over their three-game win streak, giving their opponents little to no breathing room and battling on every possession to take down the likes of Indiana, No. 5 Illinois and No. 4 Ohio State. Both squads have a lot on the line as postseason nears, so expect this one to be gritty.

“They really guard the ball, they got really good individual defenders, they play with great toughness, their post guys are relentless,” Turgeon said. “Should be a physical and hopefully a really good defensive game, and we’ll see who makes the most plays at the end — I think that will be the difference.”