So can the Terps pull off the rare trifecta, beating a team three times in one season? Or is third time the charm for Tom Izzo’s squad? We’ll find out March 14 at 3:30 p.m. in Chicago’s United Center, when Maryland and Michigan State will play for a berth in the Big Ten tournament finals the very next day.
"(The Maryland game) is the key," said Spartans junior Denzel Valentine, who scored 23 points in a 76-67 victory against Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. "Maryland is a great team with a great coach and we have to come out ready to play with the same energy we had [March 13] and not make those mistakes in the second half."
The Terps have caught fire late during the year, winning eight straight to improve to 27-5 and 15-4 in the Big Ten. They are coming off an exciting, up-and-down, punch-counterpunch bout against Indiana with Maryland inching away down the stretch for a 75-69 victory.
It was UMD’s 11th straight win (against zero losses) in games decided by six points or less, a stat the popular Ken Pom ratings suggests is mere luck.
“I'm the luckiest guy in America,” Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said after the IU game March 13. “ If you know anything about me, I've been lucky my whole life. If Ken Pom and his stats are saying I'm lucky, then he's right, so good for him. But we're good, too.”
Said senior Dez Wells, a first-team All-Big Ten performer who scored 22 points against Indiana: “We're used to having to grind it out so that's kind of like the stigma with the Big Ten. It's kind of grind it out kind of games with the teams especially like the teams like Purdue and stuff like that.
“We're used to grinding it out and having to fight for every possession. This team is battle tested. We've been through a lot of adversity this year, whether it be, like, nagging injuries or people not being able to play because of injuries.
“We've always had to adjust, so we're accustomed to that. Regardless of what type of adjustments we have to make during the game, we're going to make them, and we feel confident, and we know how to maintain our composure throughout the game.”
Composure is perhaps the main reason the Terps finished second in the Big Ten this year. They’re not a particularly high-scoring team (69.8 points per game; seventh in the conference); they turn the ball over a good amount (minus-0.72 turnover margin; 11th in the Big Ten); and they’ll give up their share of points too (63.3 per game; seventh in the Big Ten), but they sure as heck know how to close down the stretch.
UMD’s 75.7 free-throw percentage is second best in the conference, led by freshman point guard Melo Trimble’s 87.1 percent conversion rate. Moreover, the Terps have the second-best field-goal percentage defense (39.5 percent), the backcourt in particular buckling down in crunch time.
“[The Maryland game] is really big for us. It's our first quick turnaround and we'll see how mentally tough we are, especially against a great team,” said senior MSU guard Travis Trice, who just dropped 18 points on OSU, and during two games against UMD poured in 31. “They are playing really well and they beat us twice this season, but we feel like they are playing better now than they were early on."
Now Maryland and Michigan State will meet for a third time, although neither squad will have much time to ponder the previous two matchups. After all, they’ll be taking the floor less than 24 hours after playing in the quarterfinals.
"That's one hard thing about the tournament, to play in that short a time," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "But [Maryland] has got almost the same situation. We'll see what we can do. We'll have some fun tonight, and I'll tell you, if there's a better thing to do during March Madness than to stay up all night and work, it's the greatest thing there is. I really mean that sincerely. I love the moment, I love the opportunity. I'm getting a little old for it, but it's still a lot of fun."
The two prior UMD-MSU games may or may not serve as indicators of how this March 14 bout will go down, considering one was a blowout and the other an edge-of-your-seat affair.
Back on Dec. 30, 2014, the Terps and Spartans engaged in a tense, back-and-forth battle in East Lansing, Mich., senior wing Dez Wells drilling an end-of-regulation triple to force overtime. The teams remained tied at the end of the first extra period before Maryland prevailed in double overtime, 68-66.
The Terps shot just 33 percent from the floor and 18 percent from 3, but, as they’ve done all season, connected from the free-throw line, hitting 26 of 32 attempts to prevail. Melo Trimble led the way with 17 points, while Wells had 16.
Jake Layman grabbed nine rebounds, and Evan Smotrycz had eight, helping UMD to a 52-26 advantage on the glass.
The Spartans had trouble offensively as well, shooting 32 percent from the floor. Trice kept his team in the game with 26 points, but no other MSU player scored in double figures. Michigan State’s undoing, though, was free throw shooting as the Spartans connected on 68 percent of their foul shoots, canning seven less than UMD.
While it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game, it seemed to pit two evenly-matched squads against one another. Given that, many figured to see a similar theme a little more than two weeks later, in College Park, Md.
Instead, the Terps turned on the accelerator from the jump and never let Michigan State into the game. In perhaps their most decisive victory all season -- remember, Maryland’s margin of victory was just 6.6 points (seventh in the Big Ten) -- UMD stomped on the Spartans, 75-59.
Maryland didn’t have its best offensive display, but the Terps still ended up shooting 43 percent while converting 20 of their 22 free throws (prompting Izzo to question the foul calls after the game). Moreover, a turnover-prone UMD team had just eight on the evening compared to 12 for MSU.
Trimble led the way with 24 points, including a remarkable 6-of-11 performance from range. Layman, meanwhile, had one of his most productive outings all year, scoring 23 points to go along with 12 rebounds for a double-double.
The Spartans actually shot better than UMD, finishing 45 percent from the field. But they once again struggled from the line (3-of-17) and from deep (18 percent).
Forward Branden Dawson had 14 points and Matt Costello added 12, but Trice never found his rhythm and finished with just five.
The two games pretty much serve as a microcosm of how Michigan State’s (22-10, 12-6 Big Ten) season has gone so far. When the Spartans show up, they’re a tough out, racking up points in bunches (72.3 per game; fourth in the Big Ten) while stifling teams on the defensive end (63.1 points allowed per game; fourth in the Big Ten).
MSU isn’t particularly big, and it doesn’t have much of a frontcourt presence (scoring wise), but it can be a rugged bunch nonetheless. In fact, the Spartans out-rebound their foes by seven per game, ranking second in the Big Ten. They also have more offensive rebounds than any other team in the conference.
At the same time, the Spartans suffer through lulls and haven’t been consistent with their ball-handling or from the foul line. Although they do a good job handing out assists, MSU has a minus-0.47 turnover margin, putting them in the bottom third of the Big Ten. More egregious, the Spartans have connected on only 62.7 percent of their foul shots, worst in the conference.
Against Ohio State March 13, Michigan State stormed out to a 17-point lead and looked like it would blow the Buckeyes right out of the United Center. But thanks to a rash of turnovers and missed free throws, Michigan State lost control. OSU crept back to within five points with three minutes to play before MSU did just enough to stave off the Buckeyes’ charge.
"Just don't panic," Valentine said. "We've been in this position before plenty of times this year. We've been up on teams and have come back and we've been on the opposite side where we give up the lead and end up getting beat. We didn't want to make that same mistake."
Valentine ranks second on the Spartans at 14.8 points per game, while Trice is first at 14.9 per. Forward Branden Dawson averages close to a double-double at 11.6 points and 9.6 rebounds.
No other Michigan State player scores in double figures, although guard Bryn Forbes scores 8.8 per, while big man Matt Costello is second on the squad at 5.4 rebounds per game.
“We're not going to worry about match ups,” said Turgeon, who noted that big man Michal Cekovsky, who missed the IU game with a stomach virus, should be back March 14. “We're just so darned excited we won a game. Got 27 wins now. This group has been phenomenal. They played with great poise tonight, and things weren't going well, but they knew they were going to win. … I'm just glad we're in the Final Four. That's pretty cool.”
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