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Maryland men’s basketball Big Ten tournament preview: Michigan State

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The Terps and Spartans face off for the second time in 11 days.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 28 Michigan State at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The postseason has arrived for Maryland men’s basketball, and even though the Terps are on a two-game slide, not many thought they would make it to this point.

Picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten, Maryland surprised many with key victories on the road against ranked opponents and then found its groove defensively to climb up the Big Ten standings and secure a trip to the Big Dance.

Maryland had a chance to finish tied for sixth in the conference and as a 7-seed in the tournament, but the loss to Penn State last time out cemented the Terps as the eighth seed and set up a rematch with Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.

Off the court, this year’s Big Ten tournament serves as a milestone in itself, with the league having to pull the plug on the event just one year ago. Thursday will mark the first postseason game for the Terps since a second round NCAA Tournament loss to LSU in 2019. Maryland has made the best of unusual circumstances this season, never having to go on a program pause in play.

“We’ve sacrificed a lot,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “It’s been a pretty boring existence, to be quite honest with you. Home to practice, practice to home. Guys have sacrificed a lot. I just hope you can stay with it through the weekend, play well this weekend, and have a chance to stay COVID-free.”

The road ahead in Indianapolis for whoever wins this matchup will be wildly challenging, with top seeded Michigan waiting in the wings.

Game information

Thursday, March 11, 11:30 a.m. ET, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

TV: Big Ten Network (Kevin Kugler, play-by-play; Stephen Bardo, analyst; Andy Katz, sideline)

Radio: 105.7 FM (Baltimore) / 980AM (Washington, D.C) (Johnny Holliday, play-by-play; Chris Knoche, analyst; Walt Williams, analyst)

Stream: Big Ten Network

How did the Terps get here?

No. 8 seed Maryland Terrapins (15-12, 9-11 Big Ten)

Saying the 2020-21 season has been up and down for Maryland men’s basketball would be an understatement.

The Terps kicked off the season with their standard nonconference tune-up, but got hit hard by Clemson and then-No. 19 Rutgers as the schedule got tougher.

Maryland managed to knock off then-No. 6 Wisconsin on the road on Dec. 28, the Terps’ first win over a high-major program on the season. Ranked road wins against then-No. 12 Illinois and then-No. 17 Minnesota came in January, proving that the team had fight within.

February was when the Terps really made their push into the NCAA Tournament picture, posting a 6-2 record, including a five-win stretch to close the month.

Though it happened late, Maryland found its purpose on the defensive side of the ball, led by senior Darryl Morsell, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

The Terps did have a chance to push for a higher seed in the Big Ten tournament, but a late season slide that included deflating losses against Northwestern and Penn State locked them into the No. 8 spot.

“It’s about March,” Turgeon said. “My whole thing was we were 1-5 at Illinois, we were 4-9, and we got ourselves to 9-11 in the league and put ourselves in a pretty good position. So, let’s take some positives out of what we’ve done. And then you come back together on Tuesday and your thought for the day; ‘It’s a new season.’ So you got to put the regular season behind you and try to enjoy the postseason.”

No. 9 seed Michigan State Spartans (15-11, 9-11)

The Spartans came into the 2020-21 season with some question marks in terms of their depth, but did earn respect with Tom Izzo at the helm, landing in the top quadrant of preseason league rankings.

After wins against Eastern Michigan and Notre Dame, it was No. 8 Michigan State taking down No. 6 Duke in what was thought to be an early season treat before both teams’ struggles hit. Both are now on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State reached as high as No. 4 in the AP Top 25 Poll after starting the season 6-0, but fell in its next three contests against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

A two-game winning streak against lowly Nebraska and Penn State was followed by another four-game skid, putting the Spartans’ backs against the wall near the end of February.

Izzo did what Izzo does and rallied his team, leading Michigan State to a three-game win streak over Indiana, then-No. 4 Illinois and then-No. 5 Ohio State prior to facing the Terps on Feb. 28.

A bad loss against the Terps raised further questions about the Spartans being worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, but another win over Indiana and splitting consecutive games against then-No. 2 Michigan ended the regular season on a high-note and has likely cemented Michigan State in the big dance.

What happened last time?

Sunday, Feb. 28 — Maryland, 73, Michigan State 55

Coming into the matchup, Maryland had proved its worth to bracketologists with its latest victory coming on the road against Rutgers, pushing the Terps’ streak to four wins in a row.

Michigan State posed a threat, however, coming off a pair of top-five victories against the Fighting Illini and Buckeyes, and having beat the Terps in seven of its last nine meetings.

The Terps surprised many, finding their grove early on the offensive end. An 11-0 run started things off, but even more valuable was the fact that Michigan State was held scoreless through the first 6:09 of the contest.

Maryland was not only playing strong defensively, but had an offensive answer for anything Michigan State threw at it.

The Terps shot 21-for-43 (48.8%) from the floor, including an 8-for-16 mark (50.0%) from three-point range, and converted on 23 of its 24 attempts from the charity stripe. Eric Ayala led the way with 22 points, 13 of which came from a perfect effort at the line.

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Maryland find its groove again? Since its five-game winning streak, Maryland has struggled with back-to-back losses against lesser opponents in Northwestern and Penn State. Both games started off with strong opening runs, but the Terps fell apart quickly against the Wildcats and collapsed late against Penn State. Returning to the basics of strong defense and consistency will be key for the Terps this postseason.

“[We] just got to come out with the same energy and confidence and excitement that we had in the initial matchup,” Wiggins said. “We haven’t paid any attention to the last two, so guys are excited. We’re moving on. And we’re ready for this one.”

2. Who will score points for the Terps? Aaron Wiggins has been the one constant through this two-game slide, leading the Terps with 26 against Northwestern and a 15 and 10 double-double against Penn State. During Maryland’s win streak, it relied on a widespread effort between four to five players or a strong two-headed effort to carry the load offensively. While Wiggins has been hot and can keep the Terps close in games, the team will need a concerted effort offensively to get back in the win column.

3. How does a fully rested Michigan State team stack up against the Terps? After the Spartans’ disappointing effort against Maryland on Feb. 28, Izzo had suggested that his team struggled due to scheduling, with the game being its third in less than a week, including two matchups against top five teams, while the Terps were off for six days. With both teams now having the same amount of rest, Thursday’s matchup will simply come down to who is better prepared.

“You know for one of the few times in my life I’d say it was good rest for everybody, including the coaching staff,” Izzo said Tuesday. “We worked yesterday, players didn’t, but last night we took a little time off ourselves, so I thought everybody needs to be a little fresher.”

The road ahead

If Maryland were to beat Michigan State, an 11:30 a.m. matchup with top-seed Michigan would await Friday morning. The Terps lost both matchups with the Wolverines this season, with the closest being a nine-point affair on New Year’s Eve. Win or lose, Selection Sunday is set for March 14 at 6 p.m. on CBS, and Maryland sits solidly in the field.

“You know everybody’s watching,” Ayala said. “As a child, you grow up watching March Madness, you see March Madness everywhere. It seems like everybody knows what March Madness is, even if they don’t watch college basketball all season, people watch March Madness. So, it’s definitely just an environment.”

Turgeon stated that the plan as of Wednesday is for the Terps to remain in Indianapolis through the weekend, regardless of their results on the court, with the expectation of taking part in the NCAA Tournament starting next weekend. The NCAA has asked all teams playing conference tournaments in Indianapolis that have a chance to make the field to do so.

Predictions

Vegas: Maryland -3 (as of midday Wednesday)

ESPN BPI: 57.6% chance of Maryland win

KenPom: Maryland 67, Michigan State 64 (60% chance of Maryland win)

Me: Michigan State 70, Maryland 62