It took 28 games, nearly four months and until the very last possible day of February, but as the calendar flips to the month of March, it is hard not to think that on Saturday, we finally got a glimpse of the Michigan State team that was a consensus No. 1 back in the preseason.
Cassius Winston led five players in double-figures with 20 points and six assists while Xavier Tillman finished with 14 points, 12 boards, six assists and a pair of blocks as No. 24 Michigan State went into College Park and steamrolled No. 9 Maryland, 78-66.
The scoreline itself says all you need to know, but that’s really not the end of the story.
This was the biggest game that Maryland has played in that building in years. This was a chance to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title with two games left to play. This was Gameday, an 8 p.m. tip that came a full eight hours after ESPN hosted the show in the building on Saturday morning. The Terrapin faithful were very well-lubricated, and I have to imagine that Scott Van Pelt was one of them. That building is one of the underrated on-campus venues in the country, and when they get revved up, that building gets loud, angry and quite rude.
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And none of it mattered.
Michigan State scored the first nine points of the game. They led 17-5 before Maryland woke up. The Terps eventually tied the game at 23, but Michigan State immediately answered with a 9-0 run. They led 40-29 at the half, and Maryland only made it a single-digit game for a single possession in the second half.
That’s what beatdowns are made of.
The Spartans have now won three straight and four of their last five. The only loss in that stretch came exactly two weeks ago, when Maryland scored 14 straight points in the final three minutes to beat Michigan State, 67-60, in East Lansing.
I’m starting to buy back in.
And maybe I’m just stubborn. Maybe I am too hooked on this idea that Tom Izzo is a great March coach and that Cassius Winston is still capable of going into #GodMode and winning games all by himself. I’m definitely still buying into the idea that Xavier Tillman is the most underrated five in all of college basketball.
We know about all of that, and frankly, it hasn’t been the issue that Michigan State has faced this season.
The truth is that the loss of Josh Langford hurt the Spartans more than any of us realized because we all underestimated just how big the holes left by Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins would be. The latter two were program guys, redshirt seniors that were plus defenders, capable shooters and fully immersed in everything that Izzo expected them to do. And Langford? He was the third-scorer this team has been missing, the guy that would make defenses pay for selling out to stop Winston and Tillman ball-screens, the shooter that could get hot and go for 30 when the time was right.
As good as Aaron Henry is, he’s not that guy. He’s a terrific defender, a ball-mover and a guy that can gives Izzo all kinds of lineup versatility, but he’s not someone that you want to be relying on night in and night out for double-digits. He has, however, hit for double-figures in five of his last six games after finishing with 10 points and three assists against Maryland.
Rocket Watts, however, might be that guy. A freshman point guard, Watts is wired to score, and it looks like he is finally starting to put it all together. He scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half against Maryland, including a pair of huge threes to snuff out Terrapin runs. He had 21 points against No. 18 Iowa on Tuesday. He also went for 21 points in Michigan State’s win at Illinois earlier this month.
And I would be bereft if didn’t mention Malik Hall, who had 16 points and hit all five of his field goals against Maryland. He’s moved into the starting role at the four, and he is the perfect player for that spot if he can play the way that he did on Saturday.
It’s probably worth noting that Hall has had two games where he scored in double-digits this season, and they just so happen to be Michigan State’ two-best wins of the season: at Maryland and at Seton Hall, when he had 17 points.
It’s also worth noting that the only game where all three of Watts, Henry and Hall struggled was the one game that Michigan State has lost in the last three weeks.
That is not a coincidence.