East Lansing — There are plenty of adjectives to describe Michigan State’s matchup with Maryland tonight, and none of them have to do with the fact it features two highly ranked teams playing on national television with ESPN’s College GameDay as a warm-up.
It’s much more than that for Michigan State, a team reeling from three straight losses and finding itself below .500 in the Big Ten.
“This is like a championship game,” senior guard Denzel Valentine said. “It’s gonna be a huge home game — College GameDay, top-10 team, we’re trying to get back a little bit. I think this is a huge one.”
Huge might be the best word to describe it, along with pivotal, vital and massive. It’s not a position No. 11 Michigan State expected to be after winning the first 13 games of the season and sitting atop the national rankings for four consecutive weeks.
It’s not even a position the Spartans figured they’d be in after Valentine injured his left knee in late December, forcing him to miss four games. After all, they came out of that stretch 3-1 and looking to get rolling in Big Ten play.
However, things have gone way off course with a one-sided loss at home to Iowa followed by one-point defeats to Wisconsin and Nebraska.
That rough stretch has Michigan State (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten) looking for any sort of victory, no matter that today’s game happens to have that marquee feel with two of the top teams in the country.
“At this point we need a win,” junior Gavin Schilling said. “I think this would be a perfect game for us to pull out the win and keep going from there.”
There’s no doubt the Spartans need to get back on the winning track as their Big Ten championship hopes continue to get murkier.
A loss today would be just the fourth time in 21 seasons that coach Tom Izzo has lost at least four games in a row. The last time it happened was in the 2006-07 season.
But even with the last two one-point losses, Izzo feels like he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“I know how good we can be. I really do,” Izzo said. “We gotta figure out how to be a little smarter and maybe we don’t run as much. Maybe we shrink the game down a little bit. We’ve gotta save Denzel some. We can’t put everything on his shoulders.
“We utilized a couple other guys, but bottom line, if we miss free throws, if we miss wide open shots, if we don’t execute down the stretch with a four-point lead, it doesn’t matter what anybody does. Those are things that have to happen.”
The mistakes at crunch time have been major factors in each of the last two losses, and against Nebraska, Michigan State missed three of six free throws in the final 3:41. Throw in the continued absence of point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. (plantar fasciitis) and the suddenly cold shooting of guard Bryn Forbes, and the Spartans are scrambling.
Getting everything to come back together against No. 7 Maryland won’t be easy.
The Terrapins (17-2, 6-1) have lost only once in more than a month and a half — a three-point loss at Michigan last week — and have three players averaging better than 13 points a game.
Preseason Big Ten player of the year Melo Trimble is scoring 13.9 points and handing out 5.7 assists a game while freshman Diamond Stone is averaging 13.5 points and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter is scoring 13.2 a game. The Terps have plenty of depth, as well, with senior Jake Layman and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon having their share of big moments.
It’s an even better team than the one that beat Michigan State in two of three meetings last season, with the Spartans getting the best of the Terps in the Big Ten tournament.
“They pretty much have the same pieces, but they have Stone now and Sulaimon and everybody else like Layman and Melo is playing with more confidence,” Valentine said. “So it’s a step up from last year. (Trimble) is gonna come in here and try and do his thing but we just can’t let him have a career night.”
Izzo is certainly impressed.
“Maryland is the best team that I have seen on film,” he said. “Trimble is amazing. … I think he has really matured and he has made some unbelievable passes. He still can score the ball, but he is really letting the game come to him rather than forcing the action like I think he did a little bit last year. Carter is really making a very big difference and Stone, as everyone knows, is a really good player and strong.”
Even with the tall task of stopping the Terrapins, Izzo hopes the progress he has seen turns into much-needed win.
“(It’s been) two steps forward, one step back,” he said. “Pretty soon, it’s going to go two steps forward, then three, then four, and I feel very comfortable about that.”
No. 7 Maryland at No. 11 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 tonight, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Maryland 17-2, 6-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 16-4, 3-4
Notable: Maryland won its first Big Ten game at the Breslin Center, beating Michigan State, 68-66, last season in double overtime. … Denzel Valentine is the only player in MSU or Big Ten history to total 1,300 career points, 700 career rebounds and 500 career assists. In 129 career games, he’s totaled 1,343 points, 743 rebounds and 503 assists.
Michigan State has lost four straight games three times under Tom Izzo. The Spartans will attempt to avoid the fourth tonight against Maryland. Here’s a look at the first three:
■1996-97: (5) Illinois, 66-63; Michigan, 74-61; at Purdue, 72-62; at Michigan, 85-65; Purdue, 77-62
■2001-02: (4) Stanford, 75-64; at Minnesota, 70-67; at Indiana, 83-65; Wisconsin, 64-63
■2006-07: (4) at Ohio State, 66-64; at Illinois, 57-50; Ohio State, 63-54; at Purdue, 62-38