MSU heads to Maryland with Big Ten title hopes squarely on the line

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The last time Michigan State played Maryland, everything was in place for a big day.

The Spartans were hosting the Terrapins in the marquee game in college basketball, with ESPN’s "College GameDay" on campus, the 2000 national championship team on hand celebrating its 20th anniversary and control of the Big Ten up for grabs.

With just more than three minutes to play, Michigan State appeared primed to cap the day with a signature victory over one of the hottest teams in the conference.

Michigan State's Xavier Tillman

Instead, Maryland outscored Michigan State, 14-0, to close the game, silencing the crowd and seemingly knocking the Spartans from any reasonable shot at winning a third straight Big Ten championship.

But, as is the case in the Big Ten this season, almost nothing seems certain. No. 24 Michigan State (19-9, 11-6) has won two in a row and has started to build some momentum while No. 9 Maryland (23-5, 13-4) ended a nine-game winning streak by losing last weekend at Ohio State and needed a miracle comeback at Minnesota on Wednesday to avoid two consecutive defeats.

The Terrapins, who have won 10 of 11, still have a two-game lead with three to play, but the four teams tied for second place — Michigan State included — feel like there’s an opportunity to catch the Terps. For Michigan State, getting a win at the Xfinity Center would not only move it a game out of first, it could begin to get rid of the sour taste from the late collapse in the last meeting with the Terrapins.

It even had the Spartans acknowledging the idea of revenge heading into the 8 tip-off.

“Absolutely,” junior center Xavier Tillman said. “That way it is still fresh in my mind. Definitely.

"I definitely want this rematch especially with (the fact) we could have played better.”

More: Spartans ignore shifts in Big Ten standings, focus on their own play

To say it was an uneven performance the last time around would be an understatement. The Spartans struggled in the first half as the Terrapins controlled the glass and built a double-digit lead.

Things turned in the second half, though, as Michigan State dominated for the first 17 minutes of the half, right up until the late collapse that include four straight 3-pointers from the Terrapins, three in a row coming from senior guard Anthony Cowan.

For the past two weeks, the Spartans have been kicking themselves over the way that game played out. The defensive lapses late were just the latest in a long line of ways Michigan State has been unable to finish games this season.

Tillman, especially, was worn out late in the game, leading to his defensive miscues.

“A fresh Xavier would have helped, and I think we can get him a little more rest,” Izzo said. “But I think part of a fresh Xavier is a lot of the mind games are gone too with what he went through during the two weeks before he had little junior.”

Tillman, of course, became a father a little more than a day after that game and has been playing well ever since. He got plenty of help in the win over Iowa on Tuesday as Cassius Winston had a huge second half, Aaron Henry was the best all-around player on the floor and Rocket Watts scored a career-high 21 points.

They’ll all need to be at their best to stop not only Cowan and big man Jalen Smith, but a talented group of wings, including 6-foot-6 Aaron Wiggins, 6-5 Darryl Morsell and 6-5 Eric Ayala.

“Cowan has been really sharp,” Izzo said. “Smith has been really good. But it has been those three guys on the wings that have been dynamite, just consistently good defensively, consistently good on the break, consistently good offensive rebounding. I think turnovers and rebounds will be the name of the game.”

Morsell hit the winning 3-pointer at Minnesota on Wednesday and all three were key factors in Maryland’s victory at Breslin Center.

“Their two stars are very good, but I think it's their wing guys that are rebounding the ball,” Izzo said. “They had like 19 offensive rebounds against Minnesota and that was the difference in the game.”

Michigan State is tasked with neutralizing those wings in another high-profile matchup. This time, GameDay is in College Park and the arena will be buzzing as the Terrapins have a chance to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title.

The Spartans will try to play spoiler while leaving a window open for themselves in the final week of the season.

“We played some great teams and we've played a great non-conference schedule,” Izzo said. “Maryland is an incredible place to play with that student section on the end and with GameDay there. We're going to try to do what they did. They spoiled our GameDay, they spoiled  our reunion. We're going to try to do the same thing.”

The Terrapins won’t be rolling over, and the Spartans know that. Still, they’re relishing the opportunity.

“We know that we’re coming into their house,” Winston said. “It’s gonna be a big game and we like that. They gotta come prepared, they’ve got to come with their best. If they don't come with their best it's gonna be a tough game. Same for us. … This is the position you want to be in, so you gotta to show up with it.”

Michigan State at Maryland

Tip-off: 8 Saturday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: No. 14 Michigan State 19-9, 11-6; No. 9 Maryland 23-5, 13-4

Outlook: The Terrapins closed the last meeting with a 14-0 to win by seven at the Breslin Center. Michigan State had won three straight in the series before that. … Maryland is 15-0 at home this season, including 8-0 in Big Ten games. … MSU’s Cassius Winston has 1,908 points and is seven points from passing Jay Vincent (1,914) for sixth all-time.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau