Iowa Hawkeyes (16-4) vs. Michigan State Spartans (18-2)
Date: January 28, 2014
Time: 6:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena
Line: Iowa -6
That's not a typo. Iowa is a six-point favorite Tuesday against the No. 7 team in the country, and for good reason: Sparty is banged up. Forward/center Adreian Payne and forward Branden Dawson both look extremely unlikely to play Tuesday, with Payne suffering from a foot injury and Dawson out after injuring his hand (as Chris Vannini told us in the podcast, Dawson was watching video and reacted to a Dan Dakich comment by hitting a table). Those two account for nearly 1/3 of Michigan State's scoring and 42 percent of Sparty's rebounding.
What's left for Michigan State: Just four guys averaging more than 20 minutes per game, none of which are over 6'5. Obviously, the Spartans rely heavily on the backcourt tandem of sophomore Gary Harris and senior Keith Appling. Harris, the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, is leading Sparty with 18.8 points per game. He has shot just 35 percent from behind the three-point line, a fairly significant drop from 2012-13, but he's a threat wherever he has the ball. Appling, who is nursing a wrist injury but says he will play Tuesday night, scores 15 a game and gets to the line at a high rate. He also leads the Spartans in assists. Junior Travis Trice (20.2 mpg, 6.8 ppg, 2.2 apg) is the first guard off the bench at the moment, though the little-used Russell Byrd and Alvin Ellis have made appearances since the injury bug hit in force.
Where MSU is really hurt -- and where Iowa could take advantage -- is in the frontcourt. With Payne out, Tom Izzo has given the starting spot to 6'9 freshman Matt Costello, who is not a serious threat to score (he doesn't have a game in double digits all season) but is a shot blocking machine and competent rebounder. Fellow freshman Kenny Kaminski also started in Saturday's loss to Michigan, and has shown the ability to score a few points. He has only played more than 20 minutes in one game, though, and MSU needed overtime against Minnesota to reach that modest goal. Denzel Valentine, ostensibly the small forward at 6'5, is probably the best rebounder available to Sparty Tuesday but has trouble scoring: He holds the lowest field goal percentage (38 percent) and three-point percentage (29 percent) of all the Spartan backcourt members. Freshman Gavin Schilling and junior Alex Gauna, both 6'9, can provide some relief off the bench.
At full strength, Michigan State is a juggernaut. They shoot well, they distribute the ball especially effectively, they defend in every way -- contest shots, block shots, force turnovers, jump passes -- and they rebound, especially on the defensive end. Izzo's genius as a coach, especially in the tournament, has always been that he can use the fundamentals to both adapt his team to an opponent's style of play and force them to change that style just enough to make them uncomfortable. Rebounding and interior play translates everywhere, at least in theory.
Without any size to speak of against one of the nation's biggest teams, though, rebounding and interior play aren't going to be the answer. The tendency would be to get baskets in transition and from the perimeter. Iowa will give them the outside shots, but the chances of Michigan State successfully using transition offense with a six-man rotation against one of the deepest and most up-tempo teams in the country look extremely low. Michigan State could abandon the offensive glass and retreat into a defensive shell, but that would go against the Spartans' fundamental purpose for being. Without his two interior maulers, Izzo is stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can't ever count out a guy who has been to six Final Fours, but if he can find a way out of Carver Hawkeye with a win tonight, he's outdone himself.