Iowa (20-9, 9-7) vs. Michigan State (22-7, 11-5)
Date: March 6, 2013
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Location: Breslin Center, East Lansing
Line: MSU -3.5
When we last saw Michigan State, the Spartans were a Top 10 team with more than a few nagging injuries, but holding onto a 19-2 record after yet another overtime win in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes were outside the title race but a solid choice for third-best in the league, while Michigan State held one of the conference's top spots.
My, what a difference a month can make. MSU dropped a bizarrely-timed neutral-site game against Georgetown on Super Bowl weekend, followed that with road losses to Wisconsin and Michigan (understandable) and home losses to Nebraska and Illinois (not so much), and suddenly Sparty is barely a Top 25 team that has gone 4-6 in its last ten games. Michigan State still has yet to defeat a team in the conference's top six in regulation. Sparty's firmly in the tournament, to be sure, but those salad days of two seeds and conference titles are long gone.
What happened? Michigan State didn't get above 60 points in four of their last five losses (the other loss was at Michigan, where everyone scores more than 60 and still loses by 10). Per possession numbers aren't great in any of the losses (between 0.82 and 0.97 points per possession), but they also were not hideously bad. It was not for subpar shooting: Sparty shot above a 52 percent effective rate in all four losses and an absurd 69 percent against Georgetown. Michigan State's turnover rate spiked against Illinois and Georgetown, but they were a net neutral against both opponents. Sparty had been committing more fouls than its opponents all year, and there wasn't any significant change here.
Where Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Georgetown found their success was in dragging Michigan State into a grinding, ugly, low-possession crapfest. Illinois held MSU to 56 possessions, Nebraska 58, Georgetown 62, Wisconsin 64 (Michigan's two wins over MSU were also low-possession games, though they were typical Michigan low-possession high-efficiency outputs). Michigan State relies heavily on the three-point shot -- 32.2 percent of Sparty's points come on threes, and they shoot 38.6 percent from behind the arc -- but cold shooting is exacerbated by limited possessions. When MSU beat Iowa earlier this year, they shot just 34.5 percent from three but got 29 attempts to find a hot shooter (Travis Trice off the bench) and ride him to victory. The Spartans still managed to hit 10 shots from behind the arc, simply by virtue of the pace of play and MSU's reluctance to challenge Iowa in the paint.
Iowa, of course, isn't going to do that. The Hawkeyes are the Big Ten's most up-tempo team and the ninth-fastest nationwide. There's simply no way that Iowa plays a 56-possession slog by design, and if they do, they'll likely lose. And therein lies the problem for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are simply going to have to prevent anyone from Sparty getting hot, and while that happened for Nebraska at Breslin, it's less a gameplan than a prayer.