EAST LANSING, Mich. -- As Michigan’s State 10th 3-point bucket of the first half slipped through the rim Thursday night, Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan spun toward his bench, rolled his eyes and tossed his hands up in the air.
What the heck are you supposed to do against these guys?
Cowan shook his head before taking the inbounds pass and, to his credit, hustled down the floor to knock down a 3 of his own. It didn’t matter at that point. The No. 1 Spartans’ most recent bucket -- from the hands of senior guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. -- capped a 15-0 run that broke a tie game wide-open for good. The lead ballooned from there, ending in a 91-61 final and Michigan State’s fifth straight blowout victory.
The number of different weapons coach Tom Izzo can deploy when his versatile, prospect-loaded roster hits on all cylinders puts this team in a league of its own within the Big Ten.
“When we clamped down a little better defensively, we got our running game going,” Izzo said. “When we got our running game going, we got some open 3s. And so our barrage kept going.”
The Terps, battered by frontcourt injuries and tired from a two-day turnaround, played as well as they could have hoped through the first 15 minutes of a conference road game Thursday night. They hit eight of their first 10 shots and were shooting at 60 percent before Michigan State hit its stride. But Maryland couldn’t find an inch of separation.
“We were as good as we could be in the first four minutes,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I looked up, and we were down 2.”
Tied at 27 not long after that, Michigan State fed two entry passes to the hulking Nick Ward (16 points, 5 rebounds), who backed down his defender both times for easy buckets. Maryland tightened up around the paint on the next two defensive possessions, and the Spartans kicked two straight passes to Matt McQuaid behind the arc in the corner. He hit both.
Ten points in two head-spinning, head-shaking minutes, and that was that. Cowan played 38 minutes and finished with a game-high 26 points, but it was clear he knew before halftime that there was little he or anyone else could do to slow down the Spartans when they found a groove.
Turgeon said Michigan State’s defense is what sets this group apart from some of the other formidable teams he has run into on trips to East Lansing. What could make this group truly special, though, is the snowball effect it can generate when it avoids giving away possessions with careless mistakes.
Turnovers have been Michigan State's Achilles' heel during the past couple of years. The Spartans gathered as a group on Dec. 31 after their last game of 2017 and settled on a single New Year’s resolution: enough with the turnovers.
“We just came together and said the thing we have to do a better job of is taking care of the ball,” said Nairns, who had a 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio against Maryland. “Everybody knows that. The whole country knows that. When you turn the ball over, it takes energy away from the team.”
And so, when team leader Miles Bridges discovered the team had only seven turnovers with about seven minutes to play Thursday, he got fired up. Izzo said Bridges issued an edict in the huddle: “If anybody turns the ball over down the stretch ...” Izzo suggested to use some imagination to fill in the rest.
Michigan State closed out the blowout without another turnover.
Ten players scored for Michigan State, which shot an identical 57.1 percent from the field and from 3-point range. The Spartans used a steady diet of 3s from several sources (including veteran Kenny Goins, who connected on the first two 3-pointers of his career) to keep pace with Maryland during its early burst. They didn’t slow down much after that.
There will be nights when the Spartans are shooting so smoothly. When the inevitable off night comes, Nairn and Bridges agreed that preventing turnovers will be their best way to keep afloat.
Nairn explained that any giveaway, especially a careless one, has had a tendency to sap the team's energy. When the Spartans don’t force their own errors, it makes it awfully hard for opponents to slow down Michigan State’s momentum once it gets rolling. That’s what leads to 15-0 runs and opposing players shaking their heads in disbelief.
There will be tougher tests against more-rested and bigger defenses, but if the Spartans can uphold their New Year’s resolution through the rest of 2018, they’re bound to leave a trail of Big Ten opponents tossing their hands up in the air and wondering how the heck to stop these guys.