The Big Ten Conference race is coming to a head on the final day of February, much like many predicted. Well, sort of.
When No. 24 Michigan State visits No. 9 Maryland Saturday night, it's the mighty Spartans, long the gold-standard in the Big Ten, who are chasing the upstart Terrapins who are in search of their first Big Ten basketball title since joining the storied loop in 2014. A Maryland win Saturday would clinch at least a share of the conference regular-season crown.
Maryland (23-5, 13-4) has a two-game lead over the nearest challengers, including Michigan State, but also the Spartans' fellow six-loss compatriots - Penn State, Wisconsin and Illinois. The Spartans (19-9, 11-6) are coming off an impressive 78-70 victory over No. 18 Iowa on Tuesday. It was Michigan State's third win in the last four contests.
Notably, that lone Spartans' loss was Feb. 15 over Maryland, which has won 10 of its last 11 games.
MSU let a seven-point lead slip away in the final 3:24. The Terrapins scored the game's last 14 points to prevail 67-60.
Maryland's Anthony Cowan, Jr. hit three straight 3-pointers and had the game's final 11 points, as the Terrapins battled back after squandering their own 15-point lead.
Maryland was up to those old tricks again Wednesday, falling behind Minnesota by 17 points in the first half with Cowan having a poor shooting night and center Jalen Smith in foul trouble. But Terrapins ended the game on a 10-2 run as Darryl Morsell canned a long three at 1.9 seconds to give Maryland a 74-73 road win and keep the Terps two-games ahead of the Big Ten pack.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is impressed with his team's resiliency.
"Everything went wrong tonight. Nothing went our way all night until they missed two front ends of one-and-ones," he said of the Minnesota win. "This is who we are. We don't ever quit. We just figured out a way to win it. We've done it three times down 14. I don't know if anyone has ever done that. Our guys believe."
But Michigan State, which dropped out of the national polls before the two teams' last meeting, still passes the eye test as one of the top squads in the country. Their last five losses have all been by single digits, and the numbers back up Sparty's claim as a top contender. Michigan State is 20th in the country in offensive efficiency and 13th on the defensive side.
Athletic big man Xavier Tillman held Iowa juggernaut Luka Garza to 20 points on 9-of-21 shooting Tuesday, Garza's first game with that few points since Jan. 7.
Tillman became the Spartans' career leader in blocked shots with 147, including a late rejection of Garza to seal the win.
Point guard Cassius Winston had 19 of his 20 points in the second half, and the annual late-season Michigan State momentum could be on, particularly with a win Saturday and an accompanying move up the polls.
"I don't look at that as our team, I really don't," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo of the low late-season rank. "I think if you look at our losses ... we've been probably better than anybody in the league because our wins have been bigger."
Michigan State has another big road test Tuesday at Penn State and closes out the regular season March 8 at home against Ohio State. Maryland travels to Rutgers and finishes up at home next weekend with Michigan.
--Field Level Media