Maryland expects tough test vs. Michigan St.

Terps ready for physical battle with fifth-seeded Spartans

March 21, 2010|By Jeff Barker | jeff.barker@baltsun.com

SPOKANE, Wash. — - Jordan Williams raced off the court, slapping hands with fans behind Maryland's bench as he headed toward the Spokane Arena tunnel.

Greivis Vasquez leaped up onto a chair and pumped his fist repeatedly at a cluster of red-clad Terrapins backers in the stands. Handwritten in red ink on one of Vasquez's white sneakers were the words "Win" and "Love the Game."

The Terrapins were loving the game more than ever after overcoming early NCAA tournament jitters to beat Houston, 89-77, and advance to today's meeting with Michigan State for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. The Terps have been unofficially aiming for the Sweet Sixteen all season - in part because they fell one game shy last season and because Maryland's three starting seniors have yet to advance that far.

"I think it's very important for us," said Maryland guard Eric Hayes, speaking of himself and fellow seniors Vasquez and Landon Milbourne. "We failed two times to get to the Sweet Sixteen, so this is the year."

Fourth seed Maryland (24-8) will get its chance (2:30 p.m., EDT) against a rugged, fifth-seeded Spartans team that the Terps defeated last season.

If the Terps advance, they will face Northern Iowa, which on Saturday upset top overall seed Kansas, 69-67.

Maryland players and assistant coaches gazed intently at a television monitor mounted on a cinder block wall in their dressing room as the Kansas loss unfolded. Officially, the line from Maryland was that it needs to focus solely on the Spartans and not look ahead to a possible matchup Friday. But there was some clapping and yelling from Maryland players as Northern Iowa neared its upset.

Maryland coaches have been scouting Michigan State (25-8) since the brackets, released a week ago, suggested the possibility of the teams meeting for a trip to St. Louis in the Midwest Regional.

What impresses Maryland coaches and players about the Spartans is the efficiency of junior guard Kalin Lucas and Michigan State's tenacity on the boards.

Lucas - an All-Big Ten selection and a finalist, along with Vasquez, for the Cousy Award for the nation's top point guard - scored 25 points Friday night on only 11 field-goal attempts. He was 7-for-11 from the floor and 8-for-12 from the foul line to lead the Spartans past New Mexico State, 70-67.

Lucas is battling an ankle injury, and fellow guard Chris Allen has a problem with the arch of his foot. Lucas is expected to play; Allen's status is uncertain. Allen, who at 6-foot-3 is taller than Lucas, had been expected to guard the 6-foot-6 Vasquez, at least for some of the game, coach Tom Izzo said.

Entering the tournament, the Spartans were out-rebounding their opponents by an average of nine per game, second in the nation. Michigan State is 21-4 when it collects more rebounds than the other team and 3-4 when it doesn't. The Spartans led the nation in rebounding margin last season.

Maryland has improved its rebounding this season, thanks largely to the 6-foot-10 Williams. The freshman collected 21 points and 17 rebounds - both career highs - against Houston on Friday night. But the Terps still aren't a potent rebounding team. They ranked 174th in the nation in rebounding margin, managing 0.5 more per game than their opponents.

"They're a pretty big team," Hayes said of the Spartans. "Tom Izzo always seems to have great rebounding teams."

Hayes and the other seniors have now been to the NCAA tournament three times without moving past the second round. Vasquez, in particular, has often referred to the Sweet Sixteen when he talked about his season goals.

Maryland last advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003. The Terps then lost to Michigan State.

Maryland's post-game celebration Friday night should not suggest the Terps are satisfied yet. Rather, they seemed relieved.

For the players, the first round was about battling Houston - but also overcoming their own nerves. "We hadn't played in a week, and it took awhile to get going," Williams said.

Vasquez said the Terps - who played one of the last two games of the first round - had grown restless waiting to get onto the court. The Terps led Houston only 39-37 at the half before pulling away. "Now we're relaxed and confident," Vasquez said.

For the second game in a row, Maryland coach Gary Williams will face a veteran coach with whom he is quite familiar. Izzo, in his 15th season, is making his 13th straight appearance in the tournament.

Maryland upset the Spartans, 80-62, last season - a game in which the Terps shot 49 percent and Michigan State power forward Raymar Morgan got into foul trouble.

Williams chose to downplay that victory Saturday. "It was early in the season," he said. "Michigan State went on to have a great year [and] get to the Final Four."

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