The NCAA tournament bubble has been in Michigan State’s shadow over the last month, as the team has dropped seven of its last nine games overall. While it may still not be a must-win game, Sunday’s final regular season game versus Maryland is important in terms of seeding and momentum entering the postseason.
The Spartans fell to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Thursday night by a final score of 80-69 in a game that would have surely stamped Michigan State’s ticket to the Big Dance. Now, MSU will have its hands full on senior night against a suddenly rejuvenated Terrapins squad that has won four of its last five contests, including the Ohio State team that defeated the Spartans with ease.
More of the same issues that have plagued the Spartans over the last nine games were present in Columbus. Consistency and a team identity — things that Tom Izzo’s teams generally hang their hat on — remain invisible with this year’s Michigan State squad.
Yet, if this time of the year has taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible in March — especially with Izzo at the helm. One decisive win could spark the momentum needed to carry through the Big Ten Tournament or beyond. A solid showing in front of the home fans on Sunday will be one of the Spartans’ last chances to discover themselves.
Michigan State’s Outlook:
Against Ohio State, point guard A.J. Hoggard returned to the starting lineup after only playing 11 minutes in a loss versus Michigan due to an illness; he finished with just six points in 18 minutes of play against the Buckeyes. A healthy Hoggard may be critical to the team’s faith this season, as when he goes, so do the Spartans.
Michigan State had trouble stopping the Buckeyes’ top scorers, but also gave up 19 points to Joey Brunk, who filled in for a shorthanded OSU front court. Brunk was averaging just 1.6 points per game heading into Thursday night’s tilt.
Discipline on both ends have remained an issue and the Spartans will need to be on top of their game mentally in order to get back on track.
Forward Gabe Brown started the game red hot versus Ohio State, drilling multiple three-pointers, but cooled off in the second half. Brown — one of the few Spartans remaining from Michigan State’s 2019 Final Four roster — will need to provide senior leadership and production for the team to reach its goals. He knows what it takes, and Izzo counts on his seniors in March. Maybe a senior ceremony and smooch of the mid-court Spartan head logo at the Breslin Center can help.
Although Maryland’s tournament hopes have been lost for some time, the Terrapins are in the midst of their best season stretch and will look for revenge from the last matchup against MSU on Feb. 1, where Maryland fell 65-63 at home.
Point guard Fatts Russell has been excellent over that stretch, scoring 20 points in five of his last seven games. Russell has also been shooting at a much better clip from three-point range since the first matchup between the two programs. Maryland runs a mostly guard-heavy attack lead by Russell (14.9 points per game) and senior Eric Ayala (14.4 points per game).
At this point in the season, Maryland is playing for pride and a chance to carry momentum into the Big Ten Tournament. There’s also a decent chance these teams play each other in the No. 7 versus No. 10 matchup in the conference tournament, which could mean the Spartans and Terps meet in back-to-back games and three times overall this season.
Keys to the Game:
Maryland is just 3-6 on the road this year, while the Spartans will be happy to finally be back at the Breslin Center following their tough stretch away. Michigan State is 11-3 in the Spartans’ home building, and will look to send the team’s seniors off on the right note.
Forward Malik Hall led the Spartans off the bench in their first meeting, scoring 16 points and making the game-winning layup with 1.9 seconds left on the clock to escape with the victory. Watch out for another solid outing from him, who was inserted into the starting lineup recently in place of fellow four-man Joey Hauser. Hall presents matchup issues for a Maryland defense that doesn't fare too well at defending the basket.
Russell will need to stay hot for Maryland to have a fighting chance in this one, and the Terps likely need to find another scoring outlet if MSU decides to pressure him. Donta Scott provides another scoring option in the front court, but shot just 5-for-13 against the Spartans in the first matchup.
I’ll mostly be interested to see if the Michigan State can find an engine for the team the same way Aaron Henry stepped up last year. Ideally, the Spartans would have liked to find that person months ago, but better late than never.