USA TODAY Sports
It's now or NIT, Iowa.
Iowa (21-11, 9-9) vs. Michigan State (24-7, 13-5)
Date: March 15, 2013
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Location: United Center, Chicago
Line: Michigan State -5.5
How many times have we said the following five words this season: This is a must-win game. The Hawkeyes have probably played more must-win games this season than any other team, and have won the vast majority of them (though the fact that some of them have been lost proved that they were not, in fact, must-win games after all). This one is as must-win as it gets: The Hawkeyes sit outside the field of 68 at the moment, and a loss today almost certainly leaves them on the outside of the NCAA Tournament. A win might not make them a tournament lock, but it gives the Hawks a chance of making the field with a signature late-season win on the resume.
Of the teams in the conference's top four, Michigan State is probably the second-best matchup for Iowa (Wisconsin is obviously the first). Sparty is not particularly deep and somewhat turnover-prone (this is a double-edged sword, though; Iowa has had a knack for turning ball control teams into turnover machines, but a team that keeps winning despite a bunch of turnovers can probably deal with the mistakes caused by Iowa's perimeter defense). Sparty is extremely dependent on guards for offense, even if those guards don't shoot from behind the arc. If there is a weakness in the Spartan defense -- and it's extremely difficult to find one -- it's that MSU doesn't block a lot of shots and commits shooting fouls at an average rate, opening the door to the Aaron White game.
Where Sparty's offense could have trouble with Iowa is in the interior. Michigan State gets 57.6% of its points from inside the three-point arc, the second-highest percentage in the conference, and they avoid blocked shots well. But Sparty has struggled against teams with true shot blockers -- Indiana beat them twice, Minnesota blocked 8 in an early win, and Miami (5 blocks) and UConn (10) defended them well in non-conference victories -- and Iowa has three legitimate shot blockers to use against them, with White more than capable of guarding Adreian Payne on the perimeter. If Iowa can alter shots inside and force Michigan State to the perimeter, where their guards are guaranteed to turn it over and create fast break opportunities, Iowa has a chance.
If Iowa can't run, though, there's a chance this game becomes a slog. It's hard to find where the Hawkeyes can score on this Sparty team if White isn't getting to the line. Derrick Nix's girth is going to make it tough sledding inside for Woodbury and Basabe unless they can make the big man leave the lane. Branden Dawson has more than enough to stay with Devyn Marble, and should have help from Payne and Nix if Marble gets loose. White may have to play from the perimeter to pull Payne out of the lane, but that limits his ability as an offensive rebounder and foul recipient. And Gary Harris is going to be a matchup concern for whoever he guards (which could be Marble, with Dawson switching onto a forward should Iowa go big or move White outside). Sparty may be limited offensively, but they're made to beat everyone with punishing defense, and Iowa is going to have to turn them over and run, shoot well outside, or shake up the Sparty rotation through fouling or matchup changes if they are to break them down.
The cliche here is to ask who wants it more, but the reality is that both teams want it plenty. Basketball at this level is about matchups, and this isn't the worst matchup in the world for Iowa. But it's still Michigan State and Tom Izzo standing in the way of a potential tournament appearance. It's now or never. Go Hawks.