Just how important is Iowa's Thursday night home game with Michigan State and the Fightin' Izzos? It might just be vitally important. Granted, on the surface it seems utterly absurd to be labeling games in the second week of January as "must-win." We're just two games into league play, after all. Hell, Iowa hasn't even quite hit the halfway point of their schedule; they've played 15 games so far and since they're guaranteed one Big Ten Tournament game, they'll play a minimum of 32 games this year. There's still a lot of basketball to be played this season. And yet... this is a big game for Iowa, for several reasons.
One: Wins, wins, and more wins. This one is pretty much just simple math. If we figure that Iowa probably needs around 9 wins in Big Ten play to have a shot an snaring an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, then each successive loss to open the season only ratchets up the pressure to win the remaining games. An 0-3 (or, worse, 0-4 after Sunday's trip to Evanston, a place where many Iowa teams have struggled to win) start would require Iowa to go around 9-6 in their remaining fifteen games. The schedule does get softer after this brutal opening kick, but there are still plenty of landmines to navigate: home and away against #8 Minnesota, a road game against #15 Ohio State, a home game with #12 Illinois, and a late trip to Bloomington to face #5 Indiana.
Two: We must protect this house. It's hard to win games in the Big Ten this year, but it's really hard to win road games in the Big Ten this year. Through the first week of the season, road teams have gone 4-8, losing by a combined 82 points. That margin of defeat number is probably a little deceptive, too, since it includes Michigan's improbably lopsided 28-point win over Northwestern in Evanston and Indiana's 23-point win over Penn State in State College; Michigan and Indiana are very good, to be sure, but they're not going to truck every team they play on the road this season. Regardless, road wins figure to be hard to come by, which means Iowa really needs to protect their homecourt to give themselves the best possible chance to hit that 9-win mark in league play.
Three: Building the resume. The fact that Iowa plays Big Ten heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois (all ranked in the current top-25) just once apiece is a blessing and a curse. The good news is that it means they get more games against the league's soft underbelly (Nebrasketball, Penn State, Northwestern), which should give them better odds to hit that 9-win mark. The bad news is that it means that they have fewer opportunities to record signature, resume-boosting wins to boost their stock with the selection committee in March. As we all know, Iowa's non-conference slate isn't going to do a lot for them -- wins over Iowa State and UNI are good, but far from great -- which means they probably need to grab a win or two over ranked opponents in league play if possible to really have an opportunity to boost their resume. If we assume that road wins against ranked Big Ten opponents will be hard to come by, then that puts added pressure on Iowa to get wins from the home dates with Michigan State, Minnesota, and Illinois, the only ranked teams on Iowa's remaining schedule that are currently scheduled to visit Iowa City.
Four: Confidence matters. I'm typically pretty loathe to dive into the dime-store psychology of things like confidence, motivation, and self-belief, but you certainly can't deny that intangible concepts like those can have a big impact on a team's performance. (There's just no good way to actually measure those concepts.) I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Iowa's pair of season-opening wins a year ago, at Wisconsin and home against Minnesota, were huge in building Iowa's confidence and allowing them to put together a successful season. It didn't pay immediate dividends -- Iowa was blasted by Ohio State and Michigan State in by a combined 63 points in their next two games -- but those wins proved that Iowa could beat good teams in Big Ten play, which doubtless gave them some confidence for the remainder of the season. Confidence could be especially important with this year's freshman-laden team; too many early losses might give way to too much self-doubt and poor play, which could torpedo this season. A win over a good Michigan State team could be the building block that this team needs to put together its own successful season.
Mind you, we're not the only ones that see Thursday's game as an important, "must-win" game -- our counterparts at The Only Colors are already circling this game on the calendar, too. Granted, the stakes are a little different -- Iowa needs a win to boost its NCAA Tourney bubble aspirations, while Michigan State needs a win to stay in sight of a Big Ten championship -- but that doesn't change the fact that, fundamentally, this game figures to be an important one for both programs. It's odd to see a game on January 10 freighted with so much potential importance... but that's the way it looks right now.