COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Now this is the team we all expected. This is the team that made school history as the first to ever be the preseason No. 1. This is the team with the reigning Big Ten player of the year and a Hall of Fame coach, the team that won 32 games last year and advanced to the Final Four.
This is the Michigan State we all expected, the one that could roll into a raucous road environment against a top-10 team, dominate from start to finish and prevent said team from winning a conference championship. That’s what happened here on Saturday night, when Tom Izzo’s Spartans drubbed No. 9 Maryland 78-66. No. 24 Michigan State never trailed, led by as many as 18 points and started the game on a 9-0 run. Sparty got mostly the usual from its stars, Cassius Winston (20 points, 6 assists) and Xavier Tillman (14 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists), while picking up 29 points from a pair of freshmen, Malik Hall and Rocket Watts. They avenged a loss two weeks ago to this very Terps team, in such a salty way too—sheer dominance in front of a sold-out rowdy crowd in the biggest game at the Xfinity Center in maybe a decade.
They won a third straight game, a fourth in five after a three-game losing skid of somewhat unprecedented proportions. The Spartans (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten) became just the second team since 1968 to begin the year No. 1 and drop from the AP top 25. That wasn’t the Michigan State we all expected, but this one was. “Hell of a win for us,” Izzo said to open his postgame news conference.
Imagine it: an Izzo team surging down the stretch. The man who’s led Sparty to eight Final Fours in two decades is breeding what appears to be another late-season monster, a group that finally, he says, is playing old-school, physical ball. Izzo told a room full of reporters Saturday night that we, the media, used to describe his teams as playing football on the hardwood. Well, he says, maybe it’s time to start calling ’em that again. It’s the not-so-secret way these Spartans have crawled from the hole they dug for themselves—out-rebounding the competition and showcasing a relentless defensive effort. Watts, the rookie guard, served up the best example on Saturday, harassing Maryland senior Anthony Cowan enough to keep him to 13 points, 11 points shy of what Cowan scored in East Lansing—against Watts—two weeks ago.
The matchup, you could say, was on his mind. “He’s been talking about that all week,” smiled Winston. As the stretch run of March arrives, Izzo has himself a third superhero. For the first time this year, Watts has scored in double digits three straight games. “We’ve got Batman and we’ve got Robin,” Izzo said of Winston and Tillman. “We needed another Robin.”
So here come the Spartans and their cloaked crusaders, doing their most damage as the calendar flips to March. This seems to happen a lot, so much that during the postgame scene, Izzo jokingly questioned his own coaching in the months of November, December, January and February. “This year,” he says, “so many monkey wrenches. What doesn’t kill you, makes you tougher.” There were early-season losses to Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Duke, a 42-point showing at Purdue and that three-game slide. Before all of it, Winston lost his brother Zach when the 19-year-old stepped in front of a train back in November. “I’m playing for my brother, my family and my teammates,” he said Saturday, speaking to a group of reporters from the winning locker room.
Michigan State’s Batman swished a 75-foot prayer to close the first half, one of five 3-pointers in another hot-shooting outing. Over the last three games, he’s made 12 of 15 treys. Robin (Tillman) did some damage, too, posting another double-double, his 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame often too much for Maryland big man Jalen Smith to handle. “Knowing we can beat the No. 1 team in the Big Ten at their place, probably means we can beat anybody,” Tillman said.
The big guy opened the game with a block, added a second swat later in the night and had a dozen boards, four of them offensive. He kicked plenty of them out for a 3-point jumper, often hearing the swish behind it. In his postgame news conference, Izzo expressed his amazement that Tillman isn’t discussed more as one of the nation’s best defensive players. In no coincidence, Naismith released its 10 finalists for defensive player of the year earlier in the day. Guess who was absent from the list? “It kind of fired me up, for sure,” Tillman said.
Izzo’s superheroes thrived amid complete chaos. Thousands of Maryland students arrived more than two hours before tipoff, filling much of the lower bowl of the Xfinity Center for one of the more anticipated home games in years here. Izzo, a veteran of more than 40 years of college coaching, called it one of the greatest environments he’d ever seen. College GameDay broadcast live Saturday morning, its first trip here since 2005. With a win, the Terps (23-6, 13-5) would have claimed at least a share of their first conference title since 2010. “We knew they had a chance to win the championship,” Winston said.
Instead, the league’s preeminent power shattered dreams. The Spartans that we expected all along showed themselves.