East Lansing – There have been plenty of big games over the years at the Breslin Center and Saturday’s matchup with No. 9 Maryland certainly qualifies as that.
It would be big if it was simply about the fact Michigan State enters with some momentum for the first time in a couple weeks after winning at Illinois on Tuesday, with a chance to pull within a half-game of the first-place Terrapins with a victory on Saturday.
But add in everything around it and the buzz will be heard well before tip-off.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be broadcasting from the arena for the sixth time – the most of any Big Ten team – beginning at 11 a.m. and will have plenty of high-profile guests, including new football coach Mel Tucker. It also happens to be the 20th anniversary celebration of the 2000 national championship team and standout recruit Emoni Bates will be on hand.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on, but Tom Izzo’s focus will be locked solely on his team.
“We’ve got a lot of things happening this weekend and they're excited about it, too,” Izzo said. “You’ve got a big game with one of the best teams coming here, so that's exciting. … But one of the things I'm going to talk about is handling the emotions of things and we’ve got experience at it. I believe in talking about the elephant that's in the room instead of hiding behind that, so I'm going to talk about that, even with the guys coming back.
“Hopefully it's a festive weekend for them. It's a work weekend for me, and hopefully for my team being able to separate the two will tell the maturity level. I know Cash (Cassius Winston) and X (Xavier Tillman) and Arnie (Kyle Ahrens) will handle it, but I’ve got a lot of guys wearing diapers that might not handle it as well.”
The bells and whistles surrounding the game make for a fun day, but when it comes down to it, this is simply another game the Spartans (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten) must win if they expect to remain in the hunt for the Big Ten championship.
Michigan State currently sits two games behind Maryland (20-4, 10-3) in the loss column, but with two games left to play against the Terrapins, there’s time to make up ground. The Spartans put themselves in a hole with their three-game skid, but with the win over Illinois, they feel like things are coming together.
“It’s huge for us to just play the best the best basketball we can,” sophomore Aaron Henry said. “Obviously, Maryland's a great team. It’s a huge opponent, a huge game, a lot of hype around it. We want to play Michigan State basketball and focus on us and everything that we need to do. I just feel like if we do those things right we have a high chance of winning.”
Confidence and momentum matters, too, and as much as Michigan State was kicking itself for watching a 20-point second-half lead disappear at Illinois, there were positives to take from finding a way to win a game in the final minutes. It’s something the Spartans haven’t done often this season but managed to do when Tillman’s put-back dunk of Winston’s running shot off the backboard clinched the victory.
“That was the first time in a while where in the final minutes we made winning plays,” Winston said. “We made the winning shot. We got a rebound here, got a stop there, you know, things that you need. We made those plays and you can learn a lot from that. You don’t want to give up a lead like that, but you're not gonna learn a lot winning 20-point games all the time either. We found a way to dig deep and win a basketball game and that's huge.”
Added Izzo, “I didn't like winning it by one at the end, but we played well throughout. They hit 16 free throws in a row but we guarded well. We didn't defend without fouling as much at the end, but it was really good. And then to go down at a place like that and come back says a little bit about your character. So we're going to try to build on it but we would like to get a lead and learn how to make the lead bigger. That's kind of what the goal will be.”
Doing so against Maryland won’t be easy.
The Terrapins have won seven in a row while two players are in the top 10 in scoring in the Big Ten. Senior guard Anthony Cowan is averaging 16.3 points a game while sophomore Jalen Smith is scoring 15.1 points and grabbing 10.2 rebounds while shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range in conference games.
“Smith’s strength is he can get inside but he’s their best 3-point shooter by far,” Izzo said. “And then they’ve got Cowan, who's been a great player and a four-year guy who knows what he's doing. It’s another great matchup for our guy Cassius and then the rest of their team is like Illinois. They’re a little smaller but all very athletic with a lot of guys that can get to the rack, a lot of guys that can shoot the ball.
“But it will be our best against their best as far as Xavier against Smith and Cassius against Cowan. Let the fun begin.”
No. 9 Maryland at Michigan State
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Maryland 20-4, 10-3 Big Ten; Michigan State 17-8, 9-5
Outlook: Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series. … Two-time All-Big Ten selection Anthony Cowan leads Maryland with 16.3 points per game while averaging 4.6 assists. Sophomore Jalen Smith averages 15.1 points and 10.2 rebounds. He’s fifth nationally in double-doubles with 15 and is third in the conference in blocked shots, averaging 2.3 per game.