“It sucks to have to beat a team three times, but that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Those words were spoken by Michigan State’s senior forward Joey Hauser following the Spartans’ senior day win over the Maryland on Sunday night. While a few details of the final Big Ten Tournament bracket were still in flux at that point in the evening, once the final horn sounded at the Breslin Center, Michigan State’s next opponent was fixed.
On Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the No. 7-seeded Michigan State Spartans will once again face the No. 10-seeded Maryland Terrapins in the second round of the 2022 Big Ten Tournament. The winner will the face the No. 2-seed Wisconsin on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on the Big Ten Network and both games will take place in Indianapolis at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.
As Hauser alluded, Michigan State (20-11 overall and 11-9 in Big Ten Conference play) and Maryland (15-16 overall and 7-13 in the Big Ten) have faced each other twice already this season, with the Spartans winning both of the previous contests.
The first meeting took place on Feb. 1 in College Park, Maryland. The game was close through most of the first half until the Spartans went on a 17-2 run that extended from the final five minutes of the first half into the first few minutes of the second half. The Spartans led by 15 points with 17:44 to play.
However, Maryland then went on a 10-0 run of its own. The Terrapins continued to chip away at the lead until Maryland finally tied the score with just under three minutes to play. But, on this particular day, Spartan junior forward Malik Hall was the hero with a driving layup with just four seconds left to give Michigan State the two-point win, 65-63.
In the second meeting just a few days ago, the flow of the game also involved several runs by both teams. The Spartans jumped on the Terrapins early with an 18-1 run to start the game. The Green and White cruised to a 20-point halftime lead. But, Maryland fought back in the second period with a 12-0 run of its own.
The Spartans answered with a 10-0 run to push the lead back to 20 points. Then, Maryland responded with a 19-2 run, which cut the lead to just three points with under seven minutes to play.
But, that was as close as the visitors would get. Gabe Brown went on a personal 7-0 run to push the lead back to 10 points, and the Spartans did not look back. The seniors got to kiss the Spartan logo at mid-court, Coach Tom Izzo broke the record for most wins at a Big Ten school and everyone wearing Green and White left the Breslin Center happy.
A comparison of the Maryland box scores for the two games shows an uncanny similarity. In both games, Maryland had four starters who were on the floor for at least 30 minutes, three of whom scored in double figures. Maryland shot around 40 percent from the floor in both games, but around 25 percent from three-point distance in both games as well. The number of total rebounds (31 and 30) and turnovers (12 and 10) was also similar in both games.
In the two games with Michigan State, as well as overall, Maryland is led in scoring by the backcourt tandem of point guard Fatts Russell (14.9 points per game) and shooting guard Eric Ayala (14.6 points per game). Both players have had solid games against the Spartans this year. Russell put up 16 points in the first game and 10 points last weekend. Ayala posted 15 points in College Park and 19 points in East Lansing, including shooting 5-for-12 from deep (42 percent), which is higher than his season average of 34.6 percent.
Maryland’s final double-digit scorer is forward Donta Scott (12.5 points per game and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds per game). Scott scored 14 and 13 points, respectively, in the pair of meetings with the Spartans, but only grabbed a total of seven rebounds combined.
The Terrapins’ starting lineup also includes center Qudus Wahab (7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) and wing forward Hakim Hart (9.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game). Wahab scored nine and six points, respectively, in the two games against the Spartans this year and grabbed a total of 10 rebounds. Hart scored two points in each contest.
Only two other players from Maryland’s bench played significant minutes against Michigan State this year. Freshman big man Julian Reese averaged 16 minutes in each game. Reese scored just six points in the first game and just four points in the second game against MSU, but grabbed seven rebounds in each game. On the wing, Xavier Green has averaged about 25 minutes in the two games with Michigan State, but only scored two points in each game.
What to Expect and What’s At Stake
The Spartans have opened at a three-point favorite over the Terrapins, which correlates to a 62 percent chance that Michigan State will advance to the next round. Kenpom also projects a three-point margin, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Spartans slightly better odds at 65 percent. Those odds are equivalent to a four-point spread.
Maryland’s overall record is nowhere good enough to warrant an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Therefore, the Terrapins must win the Big Ten Tournament in order to qualify. As the No. 10 seed, these odds are estimated to be less than one percent. While one could argue that Maryland will be fighting for its postseason lives on Thursday, realistically the Terps are only fighting for a spot in the NIT. Even that seems unlikely.
As for Michigan State, the Spartans head to Indianapolis with a chance to prove that the team can string together more than one or two good games in a row. Michigan State has at least eight players who have demonstrated that they can both be double-digit scorers and good-to-great defenders on any given night.
The problem is that when only two or three of those players are playing to their potential, the Spartans are not good enough to beat even an average high-major team. Will the fact that it is now “one-and-done” time be enough to light a fire under the Spartans and spark another legendary March run in East Lansing?
I would not bet on it, but the blueprint does exist. On Sunday, MSU’s Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr. played a lot more like they did back in December than they have recently. If Max Christie can find his confidence and his shot, if Tyson Walker is more aggressive, if A.J. Hoggard is healthy and sharp, if Hauser can hit shots, and if Hall’s light bulb is on, the Spartans can beat almost anyone.
If we add to that a version of Julius Marble that rebounds and defends and a version of Jaden Akins that can hit an occasional three-pointer, then Izzo will have something. We have seen ALL of those things multiple times this year already. They just need to put those pieces together.
In any event, if the Spartan’s can survive and advance in Thursday's game against Maryland, Michigan State will face No. 2 Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. The health of Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis is in some question following an ankle injury in the season finale against Nebraska. That said, Davis was quoted on Tuesday as saying:
Even with a healthy Davis, Kenpom efficiency data still projects that Wisconsin would only be a one-point favorite on a neutral court, which would give Michigan State a 46 percent chance to reach the semifinals on Saturday.
A win on Friday would also most likely move the Spartans upward on the NCAA Tournament seed line to at least a No. 7 seed. This placement would avoid the potential for a second round game against a No. 1 seed, which is less than ideal. My best guess is that any additional win in Indianapolis beyond the game on Friday evening would improve Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament seed by one line.
In the scenario where the Spartans are still playing on Saturday, Michigan State would face either No. 3-seed Purdue (71 percent odds), No. 6-seed Ohio State (24 percent odds) or possibly even No. 11 Penn State (three percent) or No. 14 Minnesota (one percent). That game will take place at approximately 4 p.m. on Saturday and will be televised on CBS.
The Spartans would project as about a 5.5-point underdog to Purdue with about 30 percent odds to spring an upset. In contrast, Michigan State would only be about a one-point underdog to Ohio State. The Spartans would be favored against either Penn State (+4) or Minnesota (+6).
In the unlikely (10 percent odds) event that Michigan State wins three games and is still playing on Sunday, the Big Ten Tournament championship game tips off at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised on CBS. My math suggests that No. 5 Iowa (38 percent) is the most likely team from the opposite side of the bracket to make the finals, with No. 1 Illinois (34 percent), No. 8 Michigan (10 percent) and No. 4 Rutgers (nine percent) also in the mix.
The postseason is upon us. Enjoy the madness, and Go Green.