EAST LANSING, Mich. — A pair teams on lengthy winning streaks will go head-to-head on Thursday night, as the top-ranked Michigan State Spartans welcome the Maryland Terrapins to the Breslin Center for a Big Ten showdown.
After their loss to the Duke Blue Devils at the 2017 Champions Classic, the Spartans have won 13 straight games. They have topped the 100-point mark in each of their last four games, and are on quite the roll on both ends of the floor. Michigan State is the top-ranked team in the country for the fourth time under head coach Tom Izzo, and the Spartans plan to stay there for a while.
On the flip side, the Terrapins come into the day riding a seven game winning streak of their own. Two of the games were decided by six or fewer points, and both of those wins came against Big Ten opponents. Maryland has a huge opportunity in front of them on Thursday, as a win over the Spartans would cement the Terrapins as legitimate conference title contenders.
The teams met just once last season, with Michigan State picking up a 63-60 victory at home in the regular season finale. Maryland will look to exact some revenge on the Spartans, while Michigan State will look to continue their dominance this season.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of Thursday night’s battle between the Terrapins and Spartans.
The past seven days haven’t been the best for the Terrapins, at least off the court. While they have extended their winning streak to seven games, it was announced that both Ivan Bender and Justin Jackson would miss the remainder of the season due to season-ending injuries. The loss of both forwards significantly impacts the depth of the front court rotation for the Terrapins at the worst time, as the Big Ten is home to some of the nation’s top forwards.
With that said, the Terrapins haven’t let the bad news slow them down. They picked up a come-from-behind win over the Penn State Nittany Lions on Tuesday, pushing their conference record to 2-1 and opening 2018 on the right foot. Thursday marks the start of a key stretch for the team, as Maryland will play three of their next four games away from home.
Sophomore guards Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have taken on starring roles in their second seasons with the Terrapins. Cowan leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.6 points to go along with 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. He has four games of 20+ points this season, and has scored in double figures in every game except one (scoreless vs. Jackson State Tigers). Huerter is second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.1 points to go along with his 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Both players stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis, and will give the talented back court of Michigan State a stern challenge on Thursday night.
If Maryland wants to have any chance of taking down the Spartans on Thursday, they will need to get big games from the likes of Bruno Fernando, Michal Cekovsky, and the rest of the forward contingent. The Spartans boast arguably the deepest front court rotation in the country, and Maryland will need to find ways to neutralize the effects they have on both ends of the court. Fernando is having a strong freshman season, averaging 10.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He’ll have his hands full on Thursday, without question. But, as we’ve learned this season, anything is possible on any given night.
On the Michigan State side of things, the Spartans are ready for their first test as the number one team in the country. Big wins over the Cleveland State Vikings and Savannah State Tigers to close out 2017 pushed the Spartans’ winning streak to 13 games overall, and by virtue of their wins and a loss by the Villanova Wildcats, the Spartans ascended to the top spot in the latest AP rankings and Coaches Poll.
Thursday marks the first game of the New Year for the Spartans, and their first conference game since mid-December, where they picked up wins over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Michigan State will look to keep their positive momentum going, and continue their dominance on both ends of the floor.
Their scoring offense (87.7 ppg) ranks 11th in the country, while their scoring defense (61.4 ppg) ranks 14th in the nation. The Spartans also lead the country with 21.7 assists per game, 8.4 blocks per game, and a +13.7 rebounding margin. Michigan State ranks third in terms of rebounds per game, pulling down 44.4 boards per game. The Spartans have dominated on both ends of the floor, and against a Maryland team that is thin up front, they will look to continue their dominance on the glass and on the scoreboard.
Over his last four games, Miles Bridges has been a dominant force for the Spartans. Last time out, he posted 19 points and 21 rebounds against Savannah State. Then, three games earlier, he matched his career-high with 33 points in a lopsided win over the Houston Baptist Huskies. After battling an ankle injury early on this season, Bridges is rounding into form at the right time, and he’s averaging 17.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game for the Green and White. His decision to return to school for a second season seems to be paying off for both himself and the Spartans as a whole.
Up front, the duo of Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. have been flexing their muscle all season long. Jackson ranks eighth in the country with 3.33 blocks per game, and he ranks second among all freshmen in the country, trailing only Mo Bamba (4.54). He has three or more blocks in 10 games this season, and has an eight block performance against Rutgers to his name. Ward has posted back-to-back double-doubles, and seems to have put any issues revolving around playing time behind him.
Michigan State is firing on all cylinders, and they will look to continue their hot streak against the Terrapins.
Players to Watch
Maryland – Kevin Huerter
Michigan State’s back court has continually improved with each passing game, so all eyes will be on Kevin Huerter and the Maryland back court to see how they fare against Winston, Langford, and company. Huerter, in just his second season with the Terrapins, has improved his scoring (14.1 ppg), rebounding (5.1 rpg), and assist (3.6 apg) averages, while shooting 52.7% from the floor. He has 11 games in which he has shot 50% or better from the field, and has topped 60% in five of those contests. At 6’7”, Huerter’s size and shooting ability allow for Mark Turgeon to get a little creative with his lineups. With the injuries to Jackson and Bender up front, Turgeon can use Huerter to get different looks on both ends of the floor, much like Bridges at Michigan State.
Michigan State – Nick Ward
Nick Ward has been playing some of his best basketball as of late. Over his last five games, he has three double-doubles, and has put together back-to-back such performances. Ward has also scored 20 or more points in three of his last four games. Against Savannah State, he was a perfect 9-of-9 from the field, and Ward has only missed two field goals combined over his last four outings. He is one of the most effective forwards in the paint and around the basket, and Michigan State has been going to him inside more often as of late. Ward’s effectiveness and presence in the paint has opened things up for Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston on the back end, and everyone is contributing. Look for Ward to continue to flex his muscle on Thursday night against the Terrapins thin front court.
Michigan State has had Maryland’s number as of late, as the Spartans have won the last four meetings between the two schools. They will look to make it five in a row on Thursday night on their home floor.
The game has the potential to be a trap game for the Spartans, as the students are not back on campus as of yet from Christmas break, which may deflate some of the home court advantage for Michigan State. However, you can bet that Izzo will have his team focused and ready to prove that they are worthy of their number one ranking.
Despite Maryland’s injury woes up front, the game will be a bit closer than expected. Maryland’s back court has the talent to keep pace with the guards for the Spartans, but they don’t have the depth up front. Michigan State’s forwards will have a field day, and they will lead the home side to the victory.
Michigan State – 79
Maryland – 67
– T. Bennett