Iowa Hawkeyes (11-4, 2-0) vs. Michigan State Spartans (10-5, 1-1)
Date: January 8, 2015
Time: 6 p.m. CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena
Point spread: Iowa -3
Kenpom: Iowa -1
The Hawkeyes, 2-0 at the start of Big Ten play for the first time since 2003, host Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans on national television Thursday night. Tip is set for 6 p.m. God's time.
If you're following the narrative, this is as poor as Michigan State has been in years. ESPN's Myron Medcalf, never one for actually thinking before he types, put the Spartans in the "10 most disappointing teams in the country" Thursday morning, even though he conceded that Sparty had annihilated an equally-disappointing Indiana earlier this week. It's amazing what narrative can make The Worldwide Leader do the morning before a game on their top network.
In actuality, the Spartans have four losses to teams that were, at the time of the games, in the Kenpom top 20. Two of those losses, to Notre Dame and Maryland, were in overtime. Neutral-site losses to Duke and Kansas are excusable, especially in November. The only true black mark on Michigan State so far was an overtime loss to Texas Southern, a decent low-major team that shot 60 percent inside the three-point arc on the same night that the Spartans were missing their best post player and went 4/21 from behind the arc. It was, in essence, a fluke, and any solace taken from it is ill-advised.
With that said, the Spartans haven't really beaten anyone yet -- the Indiana win is the best on their resume so far by a mile -- and they haven't strayed into hostile territory much -- four neutral-site games, but just two true away games. Sparty also hasn't been pushed: Only Arkansas-Pine Bluff played MSU over 70 possessions per 40 minutes, and even the overtime games against Notre Dame and Texas Southern didn't get above the mid-60s. In other words, Izzo's charges could be facing something new on Thursday night.
Michigan State has become something Izzo usually resists: A perimeter shooting team. Three of Sparty's top four players in minutes played are perimeter shooters. You might remember Travis Trice from such games as "17 points on five shots against Iowa last season" or "10 points in 16 minutes against Iowa as a freshman," is finally a senior. He looked like a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate until December, but has scored more than seven points in just three of Sparty's eight games since as his shooting has gone south for winter. Of course, nothing can help a perimeter shooter find his range like a trip to Carver Hawkeye Arena, and Trice remains an effective point guard when he's not scoring; he dished out 11 assists against The Citadel despite going 3/9 from the field, and he's averaging six assists per game this season.
Trice is joined in the Spartan backcourt by junior bomber Bryn Forbes (6'3, 175, 10.0 ppg), who is shooting better than 45 percent from behind the arc (and takes three of every four shots from there). Small forward Denzel Valentine (6'5, 220, 13.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is more versatile than Forbes and more effective: He's shooting over 46 percent from three, and is slightly better from outside the arc than he is inside it. Valentine is also second on Sparty in rebounds and assists. Forward Branden Dawson (6'6, 225, 10.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg) missed two December games with a broken wrist, including the Texas Southern loss, but played 35 minutes and put up 14 points and 13 rebounds against Indiana. There isn't a true center on the roster, but sophomore Gavin Schilling (6'9, 240, 7.4 ppg 4.8 rpg) and junior Matt Costello (6'9, 245, 8.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) do their best in the post. Freshman forward Marvin Clark (6'6, 225) and the amazingly-monikered Lourawls Nairn Jr. (5'10, 170) provide help off the bench, but Sparty's not particularly deep.
Iowa's problems on Thursday are both simple and threefold. First, Michigan State's perimeter shooting (40 percent so far this season) nullifies much of Iowa's defensive edge. Yes, the Hawkeyes can use their parade of big men to bottle up the middle, but it's not as if Sparty is making its living on the block anyway. This is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation, and that rarely goes well for the Hawkeyes.
Second, despite their lack of size, Sparty is adept at making opponents miss and winning rebounds to avoid second chances. Izzo's man defense has slowed opponents to a crawl -- MSU opponents are averaging nearly 20 seconds per possession, tied with Ohio State for the longest defensive possessions of any team in the conference and in a virtual tie with the likes of Virginia and Kentucky. Only two teams on Iowa's schedule -- Syracuse and Northern Iowa -- have been more tenacious on the defensive end, and Iowa lost to both of them. Michigan State simply will not let you run or get an easy basket in the halfcourt, and Iowa's offense is typically not adept enough to overcome that.
Third, Iowa's own defensive efficiency is slipping; four of Iowa's last five opponents have shot more than 50 percent on two-point attempts, and all five have been within rock-throwing distance of 1.0 points per possession, the holy line of demarcation for competent defense. Iowa's work on the offensive glass and ability to get to the line have kept them in games during that stretch, a fact that won't be lost on Izzo and his high-rebound, low-foul team.
There's a fourth issue that is more complicated: Iowa hasn't beaten Sparty in nearly four years, with five regular season defeats and three Big Ten Tournament losses since then. Those early losses can be chalked up to talent issues, but Izzo has completely owned McCaffery even when Fran has had a comparable team. Last season's overtime loss in Carver Hawkeye Arena, a game that favored Iowa until the last three minutes of regulation, was a kick-in-the-groin loss that presaged other kick-in-the-groin losses to come. When the Hawkeyes made the return trip in early March, they were already five games into their late-season freefall and never looked competitive.
Fran McCaffery has a monkey to get off his back and a matchup that doesn't look great. What better time to cry havoc than now?