COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- March 4 is Senior Day in College Park, which typically means obligatory odes to the four-year veterans about to play their last collegiate games in Xfinity Center. But while the Terps are proud to honor the senior Damonte Dodd and graduate transfer L.G. Gill, the focus is more on what lies ahead.
Maryland just ended its demoralizing three-game skid Feb. 28 with a resounding thumping in Piscataway, N.J., and are looking to continue that momentum by knocking off pesky Michigan State at 2 p.m. March 4 before embarking on an extended Big Ten-tourney run.
“The key thing about Rutgers is we really played well. You want to be playing your best basketball this time of year,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Every team goes through things, but hopefully we’ll continue to get better and play well. That’s what’s important.
“And we want to finish at home the right way. It’s been a different season for us at home this year. We’ve got to play the way we’re capable of playing and have the mentality we had [against RU].”
There’s plenty on the line March 4 as well. If the Terps (23-7, 11-6 Big Ten) beat the Spartans, they’ll finish second to Purdue in the conference and earn a double bye in the Big Ten tourney. If they lose, Michigan State rises up, and so could Minnesota and Wisconsin if both win their final games. Maryland could finish as low as fifth in the league with a loss.
“We’re approaching it like every game. We prepare to play well and win it. I know there’s a lot going on [with the Big Ten standings], but our energy is at a high level and we just want to play well,” Turgeon said. “But if we win we finish tied for second, and that would be amazing. We’d get a double bye, and for three straight years we’d have done that. We’d have no worse than a second place finish our first three years in the Big Ten. There’s a lot at stake for us. But we don’t think about that. We focus on getting better.”
Of course, there will be some focus on the two seniors, and the fourth-year Dodd will be a key ingredient, as he’s been all season. The Centreville, Md., native, who barely registered a blip on high-major radars out of Queen Anne’s High, has steadily developed into a defensive stalwart and a sometimes-offensive-contributor after four years in College Park. He currently ranks eighth all-time at UMD in blocks with 138.
“It’s been a great four years. There’s been ups and downs, but Coach Turgeon is a great coach. I’ve learned a lot here, it’s like family here and just really enjoyed my time here,” Dodd said. “Coach Turgeon gave me the opportunity to play here. He took a chance on me, and I never had thoughts about leaving, even when things weren’t going well. Maryland has really shown me and my family a lot of love.”
Indeed he has. Turgeon has been one of Dodd’s strongest backers, even when the big man has noticeably struggled.
“I feel like I’ve known Damonte forever. I’ve known him since I got here. I recruited him out of high school and then at prep school, so it’s been January of my first year here since I’ve known him. And boy he’s come a long way on and off the court. He’s a great kid, and it’s amazing what he’s done for our program,” Turgeon said. “When we recruited him I said, ‘Well, we need a big body.’ I didn’t expect him to do what he’s done. He’s top 10 in blocks in Maryland history. He’s had a fabulous career, and he’s come a long way from us and Morgan State recruiting him.”
Dodd fell into a rut during the latter part of the Big Ten campaign this season, but bounced back against Rutgers with a nine point; seven rebound; two-block effort. For the season, Dodd, who has perennially battled foul trouble, is averaging just 6.4 points on 60 percent from the field, while recording less than five rebounds a night. But he’s made up for it with his rim protection. Dodd ranks third in the conference at 2.1 blocks per and is arguably the Big Ten’s best pick-and-roll defender.
“He’s very mature and poised and has become a player. He just does whatever we ask,” Turgeon said. “We don’t throw him the ball a lot, so he has to get his points by rolling or second-chance [put-backs]. He’s accepted that, and he’s always tried to be a great defender he can be. I’m hoping he plays his best basketball heading into the postseason.”
As for Gill, he’s the latest graduate transfer to make his way through College Park for a final year of eligibility. The Chesterfield, Va., native starred at Duquesne for three years as a wing/forward, but was relegated to post duty at UMD. Gill, who has assumed the “5” spot occupied by oft-injured big Michal Cekovsky, took on the role without question. His numbers and playing time were, shall we say, “muted” at times, but he’s had his moments.
In fact, in Maryland’s last game against Rutgers, Gill had arguably his best game during conference play with 10 points, including two thunderous dunks, in 16 minutes. For the year, Gill has played about 13 minutes a night and averaged two buckets and two rebounds.
“He’s another one who has really done whatever I’ve asked and with a great attitude. He always brings it,” Turgeon said. “I think he enjoys winning. But he’s playing his best basketball right now. We’ve had an unbelievable year with this team, and it’s guys like L.G. that have helped us do it.
“It’s been hard for him; he came in as a ‘4’ man. With all the injuries, he’s had to go back and forth between the ‘4’ and the ‘5,’ but he’s handled it well. There’s a lot this kid has done to really help this team, and he’s done things we didn’t talk about recruiting him. But he’s handled it with grace and maturity; he did it for the team.”
Gill called his season at Maryland an “adjustment,” but admitted he got used to his varying positions. He said he did the best he could to take instruction and watch extra film to familiarize himself with the power forward and center roles at UMD.
“It was difficult at times with all the plays and adjusting to ball screens as a center, but I took a deep breath and relaxed,” Gill said. “Once I settled in, everything became second nature. Also I came in wanting to play in the NCAA tournament and I’ll be able to do that. So no complaints.”
Although he’s only been in College Park a few months, Gill said he’s thoroughly enjoyed his short time at Maryland.
“It went by fast. It’s almost over, but I want to cherish the last moments I have here,” he said. “I’ll probably have some emotions before the game.”
The Terps will attempt to send Gill and Dodd out with a win in the Xfinity Center March 4, when Maryland faces a Michigan State foe it has yet to see this year. This is not, however, a typical Tom Izzo-coached club, as the Spartans are just 18-12 and 10-7 in the Big Ten heading into the regular-season finale. MSU may need to win a couple games, including this one on the road against UMD, in order to get off the bubble and qualify for the Dance.
Michigan State has been playing relatively well down the stretch, however, after a mid-league-schedule swoon that saw the Spartans drop three in a row and four of five. Sine then, the Spartans -- who recently lost starting guard Eron Harris to a season-ending injury -- have come away with six victories against three setbacks. They last played March 1 against Illinois and almost pulled off a comeback before falling late in Champaign, Ill., 73-70.
“This game means a lot for us. Michigan State can be a dangerous team, so we have to be prepared,” Gill said. “It’s our last home game and we want to come out on top.”
Offensively, the guard-oriented Spartans are only 10th in the conference in scoring (72.4 points per) and ninth in scoring margin (plus-3.1), but somehow they’re third in field-goal percentage (47.6 percent) and second in 3-point shooting (38 percent). How does that make sense? Well, Michigan State is not a good foul shooting squad (66 percent; 12th), nor does it get many second-chance opportunities (11th in offensive rebounding). Plus, the Spartans turn the ball over more than all but one other Big Ten squad, although some of that has to do with their up-tempo pace.
Michigan State is equally perplexing on defense. The Spartans are ninth in scoring “D” (69.3 points allowed per), but they’re third in field-goal percentage defense (41 percent) and fifth in rebounding margin and blocks. Again, how does that make sense? MSU isn’t great at defending the perimeter (35 percent; 8th in Big Ten) and also ranks last in steals and turnovers forced.
Up top, freshman point guard Cassius Winston leads the Big Ten in assists with almost 5.5 a night and is sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio. He scores about seven points per game on 43 percent from the field and 36 percent from range, while topping the squad in steals too. Winston, for whatever reason, doesn’t start for the Spartans, but he sees the majority of the time.
Rotating in with Winston is veteran Lourawls Nairn, who typically sees the floor at the game’s outset and plays around 20 minutes. Nairn isn’t much of a scorer (3.8 points per), but he’s a solid floor general who sits ninth in the league in assists (3.7 per) and is second in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Next to Winston and Nairn is senior two-guard Alvin Ellis, who also doesn’t typically start but got the nod in MSU’s last game. Ellis ended up scoring 15 points against Illinois, so he figures to stick in the rotation. For the season, the 6-4 guard averages 6.8 points on 42 percent shooting and 41 percent from beyond the arc. Ellis is second on the squad with 21 steals as well.
Yet another guard is freshman Josh Langford, who, in about 20 minutes a night, averages 6.6 points on 50 percent from the floor and 41 percent from 3. He’s good for a couple rebounds and as assist too.
Veteran Matt McQuaid splits time with Langford and plays the same amount of minutes. McQuaid has fairly similar numbers to the freshman, although he’s not a particularly efficient shooter at 35 percent from the field and 34 percent from range.
Starting at wing/forward is Michigan State’s leading scorer, Miles Bridges. The 6-7 Bridges ranks seventh in the Big Ten at 16.5 points a night, hitting at a 49 percent clip and 41 percent from deep. Bridges isn’t too shabby defensively, either, recording a team-best 8.3 rebounds per, while he’s second in blocks and third in steals. Bridges isn’t a great free-throw shooter, though, at 65 percent.
Michigan State’s main interior presence, Nick Ward, is a 6-8 freshman who has held his own during his first year. Ward plays less than half the game, but still sits second on the squad in scoring at 13.4 points per. He converts at almost a 60 percent rate, grabs six boards a night and leads the way with 49 total blocks.
Like the rest of MSU’s lineup, Ward’s backup, sophomore Kenny Goins, plays the same amount of time rotating in. Goins puts up a couple baskets each game on 58 percent from the floor. He nabs 4.5 rebounds per and maybe records a block or so too.
“Every time you get a win it helps you gain momentum. We needed to get that win against Rutgers, and now we have a lot of energy going into [MSU],” Gill said. “We need to come out and get the job done.”