Big Ten Conference-leading Maryland, the No. 9 team in the nation, travels to Michigan State on Saturday to meet the team most experts had expected to be atop the conference by this time of year.
It's a 6 p.m. Eastern tip-off in East Lansing, Mich., in a game that could shape the stretch run in college basketball's top conference this season.
The Spartans (17-8, 9-5) dropped out of the national polls last week after a three-game losing streak, but then recorded a huge win at No. 22 Illinois Tuesday, prevailing 70-69 on Xavier Tillman's emphatic stickback dunk with 6.6 seconds remaining.
"I'll take this going into a big weekend for us," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo after the game. "It will definitely jump-start us."
Meanwhile, Maryland (20-4, 10-3) won its seventh straight Big Ten game with a harrowing 72-70 home win over struggling Nebraska that same night. The Terrapins' normally stifling defense was missing in action as the Cornhuskers shot 54.8 percent in the second half to nearly overcome a 14-point deficit and hand Maryland what would have been its first home loss of the year.
"I'll take the blame. I didn't have us ready," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who picked up his 200th win with the Terrapins. "I was a little under the weather. I wasn't at practice Sunday, and I haven't missed a practice in 15 years. I didn't do my job ... take it out on me. I'll do a better job. We're 20-4, so we've done some pretty good things. I think we're in first place, too."
The key for the Terrapins, who started 4-3 in conference play, has been learning to win on the road. Maryland has rattled off three straight Big Ten road wins in a season when most conference teams are having trouble winning away from home.
The Terrapins lost their first four road contests this season, and while currently trending up, they are just 1-3 all-time in East Lansing, all since joining the Big Ten in 2014.
The Spartans lead the all-time series 9-5, have won three in a row and six of the last seven meetings.
Michigan State has often bullied Maryland in the paint, and the Terrapins are shy of depth up front this season. Still, the Spartans must find a way to control 6-10 Jalen Smith, on a tear of seven straight double-doubles, including 16 points, 13 rebounds and the game-saving blocked shot in the final seconds against Nebraska.
Izzo, likewise, has been concerned about his team's depth. The Spartans may be ready for their patented late-season charge after the big road win at Illinois despite their best player, point guard Cassius Winston, having one of his poorest games of the year with just 12 points to go with four fouls and four turnovers. His matchup with Maryland senior point guard Anthony Cowan promises to be entertaining.
--Field Level Media