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Maryland women’s basketball vs. No. 17 Michigan State preview

The No. 9 Terps battle a ranked team on the road.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Michigan St at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland women’s basketball may be sitting at No. 9 in the rankings, but the Terrapins have played back-to-back quality games against Big Ten opponents, winning both by double-digits.

Part of the reason for their latest success has been the reemergence of Shakira Austin, who not only took home Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, but also the USBWA’s National Freshman of the Week award.

The Terrapins are 4-1 throughout Big Ten play thus far, but they’re getting ready to face their toughest test of the season since an early-November matchup against South Carolina. On Thursday, Maryland will face off against Michigan State, currently ranked No. 17 in the nation.

Tipoff against the Spartans is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET on Thursday and can be watched on the Big Ten Network.

Michigan State Spartans (12-4, 2-3 Big Ten)

2017-18 record: 18-15, 7-9

Head coach Suzy Merchant is in her 12th season in charge in East Lansing following stints at Eastern Michigan and Saginaw Valley State. With a career record of 457-246 (.650), Merchant has established a long career filled with winning. Under her leadership, the Spartans have won at least 20 games in nine seasons thus far, and they’re well on their way to a 10th. Michigan State has made eight NCAA Tournaments in the past 11 seasons, though last year saw the team compete in the WNIT.

Players to know

Jenna Allen, senior, center, 6’4, No. 33. Allen broke out as a junior last season, starting 25 of 33 games to a stat line of 9.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per appearance. And in her final season with the Spartans, she’s been even better. In 16 games thus far, Allen has averaged 15.4 points and 7.5 rebounds, both of which lead the team. She’s also been incredibly efficient thus far, posting a shooting line of .551/.442/.838.

Shay Colley, redshirt junior, guard, 5’9, No. 0. Colley started her career at South Carolina, making her Michigan State debut last season. The transition was seamless, as Colley was the team’s leading scorer with 11.8 points per game while adding 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists. While Allen has taken the reins so far this season, Colley has been right behind her with 13.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

Strength

Offense. Thanks to Allen and Colley, Michigan State has been dominant offensively so far this season. With an average of 80.8 points per game, the Spartans are atop the Big Ten leaderboard and rank 18th in the nation. A lot of that success is due to quality shooting, as Michigan State is third in the conference with a .469 field goal percentage and leading with a .396 three-point percentage, which is good for seventh in the country.

Weakness

Defense. As good as the Spartans’ offensive attack has been, their defense has left something to be desired as we reach the midway point of the regular season. Michigan State has given up 65.7 points per game, which is nothing compared to its offensive scoring average, but it ranks in the bottom tier of the Big Ten nonetheless. Opponents have hit 40.3 percent of their shots against the Spartans, which ranks 13th in the conference and 223rd in the nation out of 349 Division I teams.

Three things to watch

1. Do the defenses show up? Michigan State averages 80.8 points, which leads the Big Ten; Maryland scores 77.6 points per game, third in the conference. Both squads are extremely talented offensively and have a ton of power on that side of the court, though the defense has been a bit lacking thus far, particularly from the Spartans. If the offenses come out firing early, Thursday’s game could easily be a shootout.

2. Who wins the battle inside? Maryland has double-digit victories in its past two games, and that perfectly coincides with Shakira Austin’s return to prominence. It’s not a coincidence. When the 6’5 center is on, the Terrapins are a completely different team. Fortunately for the Spartans, they have Jenna Allen inside, who not only possesses the size (6’4) and talent to stop Austin, but she also has the benefit of experience as a senior. The winner of this matchup has a great chance of winning when the final buzzer sounds.

3. Does fatigue play a factor? Maryland had a solid win on Saturday against Michigan, though it was far from easy until the closing minutes of action. Michigan State, on the other hand, just lost a tough game on the road against Ohio State on Monday. That means that Maryland has had an extra two days of rest entering Thursday’s showdown, and that could be a big advantage if the game is tight down the stretch.