COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maybe the most impressive feature about the sixth road victory of Michigan State's season-in-ascent was that, according to Spartans coach Tom Izzo, Saturday night didn't require a season's-best performance from anyone on his roster.
Michigan State won with a B-plus presentation.
Although No. 24 MSU's 78-66 upset of No. 9 Maryland was the team's most important win this season, there was no outstanding breakthrough performance. This was a statement win with some flaws again exposed. There were 12 Spartans turnovers (to Maryland's nine) and almost twice as many fouls (MSU 23, Maryland 12).
"I didn't think we played our best game," Izzo told CBS Sports. "We weren't great, we were pretty damn solid and made some big plays at critical times."
And yet, on the whole, it was a convincing strike-and-dismissal of the Terrapins, undefeated at home this season until the final day of February in this leap year. One game removed from a mini-miracle escape at Minnesota earlier in the week, Maryland was sideswiped on the eve of March by the program that epitomizes the month's successes as much as any other.
Michigan State's win doubled as a downer for a sellout crowd that was loud -- some lubricated thanks to eight-plus hours of prep -- and ready to crown their Terps. The spoiler Spartans instead prevented Maryland from clinching its first outright regular-season championship in 18 years. It ended the Terrapins' hopes of completing their first wire-to-wire undefeated season at home in just as long.
Reminders of those older teams of greatness were on display, as Gary Williams and his 2004 ACC Tournament-winning team were recognized on the court at halftime.
Saturday night turned into Michigan State's revenge conquest after its collapse exactly two weeks ago, when Maryland ended the game at the Breslin Center on a 14-0 run to win 67-60, stun the home crowd in East Lansing and seize command of the Big Ten. Now the Terps sit at 13-5 in the league (23-6 overall), just a game up in the loss column on MSU, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Izzo told me he went home after that Maryland loss and was in his office until after 4 a.m. He pulled up seven of MSU's nine losses (paying no mind to the Duke and Purdue defeats that got out of hand) and looked at what was happening to his team late in games.
On the opening night of the season at the Champions Classic against Kentucky: a big 3-pointer from Tyrese Maxey to help Kentucky get over. Against Virginia Tech in Maui, a couple of gimme plays late -- the Hokies win by five. At Indiana, a four-point loss that was a toss-up with less than two minutes to go. A similar situation repeated itself at Wisconsin earlier this month, MSU losing by one. Penn State, Michigan and Maryland: Izzo told me all of those games had situations and scenarios with 2-3 minutes left that presented his team with opportunities to win.
He cut the videos down, showed the final two minutes of those seven losses to his team the next day and reminded them of how close they were. Their record (17-9 at the time) was not a reflection on the team.
"We can still accomplish all the things we wanted to this season," Spartans senior point guard Cassius Winston told CBS Sports. "We had a couple of rough stretches, lost a couple of games we shouldn't have. Every game we've been in, for the most part, we've been in the game, just have to figure out how to win the game. Our record doesn't really tell what type of team we've been this season. We are right there, just have to take that jump, that leap."
Common denominators in the losses were turnovers, giving up aberrational defensive rebounds and bad shots. Michigan State has won three straight since Izzo showed his team the montage -- its first three-game win streak this season to include two road victories.
"I think some of the things really resonated with our guys," Izzo said. "When you're at our place and you lose seven or eight games, everybody thinks the world is ending, especially with Twitter and everything. So I just wanted to make them know that we're right there. I think they see that."
Many of MSU's wins have been dominant; predictive metrics have kept the Spartans top-10 most of the season. As of Sunday morning, 20-9 Michigan State is No. 7 at KenPom. That's why Izzo was confident his team could have a night like Saturday in them.
The third double-digit road win of Michigan State's season saw Sparty gallop into halftime with 40-29 lead after Winston (team-high 20 points) cashed a 60-footer at the horn. Promising omen. Then Sparty took crowd out of it in the second half despite Maryland's 58% shooting in the first 10 minutes. Michigan State massaged a lead that fluctuated between 11-18 points throughout much of the final 20 minutes. In a couple of rare instances of an encroaching threat to get the gap into single digits, MSU made plays every time.
And it wasn't Winston or do-it-all forward Xavier Tillman, who was tremendous with 14 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. He is as composed, mature and prepared a big man as you'll find in the country. Izzo and his staff never have to worry about Tillman's prep. Tillman told me this game played out to a large extent how he envisioned it would. Not just the win, but the win with force and refusal to let Maryland find a stride once the Spartans established a lead, which was near-immediate, at 9-0 a few minutes into the game.
"It kind of played out how I thought so as far as our aggressiveness and how much on the attack mode we would be," Tillman said. "We blew the game at home the last time. We were coming here on a vengeance with a game to play and not letting up at all."
This win was defined by moments such as Rocket Watts draining a 3-pointer to keep the margin above 10 points. It was Thomas Kithier finding a gap and snagging a board away from the Terps. It was Malik Hall -- before using all five fouls he had to give -- going 5-of-5 from the field to score 16. The last time Hall was this good, he had 17 points in a Michigan State win against Seton Hall.
Seton Hall and Maryland: MSU owns two wins on the road against top-13 teams. It's on its first three-game win streak since early January. It just might be rounding into form. Saturday provided this group with its first back-to-back wins vs. top-25 KenPom teams this season; MSU's was four days removed from a 78-70 win over Iowa.
"This is the best one, for sure," Tillman told me when comparing this win to MSU's other 19 this season. "This is the best team in the Big Ten, it puts us in a great spot to hopefully get a share of the Big Ten, especially if Rutgers and Michigan do what they're supposed to do and we finish out strong."
MSU goes as far as supporting cast like Watts, Hall, Kithier and Aaron Henry can take them. The most striking aspect of Saturday's victory was how Michigan State did not allow the come-from-behind Terps to come from behind. Maryland specializes in the rally win (four double-digit come-from-behind victories). Tillman and his teammates didn't even allow it to be a conversation.
"Rocket has been playing great, Malik now is stepping up, Aaron is playing more consistently on the offense end -- obviously defensively he's sound -- and we're getting a lot of pressure off of me and Cassius with those guys," Tillman said. "That's huge. A lot of times teams try to zero in on [Cassius and I] with our ball screens, but when we've got guys who can hit shots, it makes us that much better. I think that's what people expected coming into [the season]. OK, Cash and X are going to kill the pick-and-roll and the supporting cast is going to do what they're supposed to do. Early on we didn't do a good job with that. But as we found our groove and guys got more confidence, we're starting to play to that No. 1 caliber."
Watts and Henry combined to curtail Anthony Cowan's production, holding the Terps' vital point guard to 13 points on 6-of-15 shooting, no 3-pointers included.
"Rocket's starting to bring it every night as far as his toughness, and Aaron Henry's taking a major step in that direction," Izzo said.
Maryland's been the best team in the Big Ten this season but Michigan State proved on Saturday night that it can be the most dangerous. Watts' 3-pointer to make it 69-57 felt like a prelude to a dagger.
Then Winston's and-one 3-pointer from the corner with 4:24 to go, which made it a 75-61 game, was a kill shot. The Spartans were leaking some clock, Winston -- who had some baffling turnovers that did not hamper his team -- was beautifully composed on the play. You saw that 3-pointer fall, and Winston to the floor with it, and you thought: That is a senior, that is his shot, that is one of the best players in America.
"Good team playing for a championship, their first one, hostile environment, that place was hopping," Izzo said. "That showed a little character, a little bit of toughness, which we haven't been the toughest team I've had, by far, but we're starting to get a little tougher. If you get mentally and physically tougher, that's how you win in March."
Maryland's Big Ten celebration will be postponed; perhaps Tuesday's game at Rutgers can be when the conference clinching comes. As Tillman said late Saturday night, this game was about MSU reminding itself, proving to itself, that it can be just as good as it was predicted to be in November. These are the wins that linger into March, the ones that help a team when it's up against another good team in an even bigger spot. This win is exactly why you'll have a hard time not putting Michigan State just one round further into your bracket in a few weeks.
March is here and with it, if velocity holds, Michigan State's overdue arrival.