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— Michigan State is convinced it's a better team than the first time it faced Maryland.

For the Spartans' sake, that better be the case with the 14th-ranked Terrapins on tap today at the XFINITY Center. That's because in the double-overtime home loss Dec. 30, some of the numbers were ugly.

Michigan State shot 32.3 percent, including 22.7 percent from 3-point range.

Michigan State allowed 32 free throws after halftime.

And probably most disturbing to coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State was outrebounded 52-36.

"We can't get beat on the boards like that," Izzo said. "We can't put a team to the foul line that gets 32 free throws in the second half and overtime of a game we led more of the second half than not. You just can't do that. ...

"I think this is one of the bigger games of the year so far."

Michigan State (12-5, 3-1 Big Ten) has won three straight since the loss to Maryland and believes it is headed in the right direction, even after Izzo came away from last weekend's overtime victory over Northwestern far from happy.

"I feel like we are making some big progress," he said. "With the next four games, and three of them on the road, this is a time we can come together and make up for that loss at home. Hopefully. Traveling to Maryland for the first time will be interesting."

Maryland (16-2, 4-1) has been on a roll since defeating Michigan State, winning three of four with its only loss coming at Illinois.

But like much of the Big Ten, things haven't been perfect for the Terrapins. Maryland barely got by Rutgers on Thursday and against Michigan State, it shot 33.3 percent, including 4-for-22 on 3-pointers.

And with five teams all at one loss and three more with two, every game becomes important.

"I just look at, let's get to the middle of February and see where we're at and I'll reassess whether I think we're a championship-caliber team or not," Izzo said. "I made it pretty blunt at the beginning of the year I thought we could be, but I didn't think we were the favorites, nor do I now.

"But I do like the progression we're taking. I do like the fact we're better defensively than I thought we'd be. We're even a better shooting team than I thought we'd be. We're a worse free throw shooting team than I thought we would be. We're about as good a rebounding team as I thought. ... I like where we are, but we've got a lot of work ahead of us."

Some of that work could begin today with a new starting lineup.

Izzo has toyed with the idea of inserting freshman Javon Bess into the starting lineup in favor of Bryn Forbes in an effort to get more scoring off the bench.

Forbes, who has started all but one game this season, says he is fine coming off the bench and sees some positives.

"There are a lot of advantages to it," he said. "It gives us another scorer off the bench, you know how they're playing when you can watch a little bit and you can think about what you want to do when you go in."

The bigger adjustment likely will be for Bess, a freshman who missed the first 10 games with a broken foot and has been slowed by two sprained ankles.

But he said he is moving much easier now and would welcome more minutes.

"I'm a lot better," Bess said. "I can feel it out there moving around. I'm just a lot better."

Whether it makes the difference in Michigan State winning a fourth straight game remains to be seen, but what the Spartans are certain of is they can't play the way they did the last time against Maryland and expect to win.

"If you ask me what do we have to do this week?" Izzo said. "We have to rebound better and another interesting stat is that they had zero free throws in the first half and 32 in the second. So rebound, defend without fouling and watch this topsy-turvy league kind of go crazy."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Michigan State at Maryland

Tip-off: 4 p.m. Saturday, XFINITY Center, College Park, Md.

TV/radio: CBS/WJR

Records: Michigan State 12-5 (3-1 Big Ten), No. 14 Maryland 16-2 (4-1)

Outlook: Maryland is off to its best start in conference play since going 4-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2009-10. ... Maryland is second in the nation in free throws made (326) and tied for fifth in free throws attempted (463). ... The Terrapins also rank in the top 20 nationally in shooting defense percentage (16th, .369) and 3-point defense percentage (20th, .278).

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