#16 Iowa (12-3) at #4 Michigan State (16-1)
Time: 6:00 p.m. CT
Location: Breslin Center
Tickets: Michigan State University
Line: Michigan State -7
It's been a few weeks since Iowa upset the #1 Spartans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and that means it's now time for Iowa to pay Michigan State a visit at the Breslin Center. Needless to say, this game has some hype surrounding it. First of all, this is a nationally televised game on ESPN. Not ESPN2, but the real ESPN, which means an Iowa win would be some great exposure for this team. On top of that, Denzel Valentine is back and in the starting lineup, so this Michigan State team is a different beast than what we saw a few weeks ago. And, finally, you have the revenge factor. Tom Izzo was not happy with how his team played in Iowa City at the end of December. You could tell based on his body language on the sidelines during the game and from his comments afterward. Iowa served these guys their only loss of the season, and it wasn't a particularly close one, either. The players want revenge. Izzo wants revenge. And, honestly, Michigan State doesn't want to fall two games behind Iowa in the Big Ten race.
Sparty should be plenty motivated entering tonight's game, but if the Hawkeyes play up to their capabilities, this should be a good game. And one that Iowa could potentially surprise some people by winning.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Note: All numbers in this piece come from Kenpom or Sports Reference. Additionally, ratings in the four factors charts are scaled so that 100 = average. Thus, above 100 is above average, while below 100 is below average. For example, Iowa's 109 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 9% better than the national average this year, while Michigan State's 119 means they have been 19% better at contesting opponent shots this season.
Last time these two teams met, Iowa's offense did what few offenses had done all season against Michigan State, and that's... well, score the basketball at a high rate. Not many teams have averaged more than a point per possession against this Spartan defense this season, but Iowa did so in both halves, for a grand total of 1.18 for the entire game. Iowa's shooting was not great in the first half, but they made up for it in the other three areas above. The second half saw Iowa's shot begin to fall out an outstanding rate, while they continued to grab offensive rebounds and get to the free throw line. The only bad thing they did on defense after halftime was turn the ball over on about a quarter of their possessions.
This time around, I'm curious to see how the return of Denzel Valentine will impact this Spartan defense. He has the reputation of being a much better defensive player than his replacement off the bench in Eron Harris, and he is also an insane defensive rebounder for his size and position. I mean, he's 6'5" tall and plays on the wing, but he's the 76th best defensive rebounder in the country, per Kenpom. Michigan State severely missed that last time, as Iowa grabbed 35% of their misses, which is something that just doesn't happen very often against a Michigan State team that sucks up just about every single rebound.
Another thing to watch is Iowa's shooting. Michigan State is a physical defense that makes you run your offense to near-perfection, and usually ends up forcing other teams to take a lot of tough, contested shots near the end of the shot clock. Iowa shot the ball well in the second half of the last game, but not so well in the first half. If the Hawkeyes' offense is motionless, or they just can't get their shot to fall, it could be a bad situation because offensive rebounds probably won't be available the way they were in the last contest.
Still, Iowa possesses one of the best offensive attacks in the nation this year, and they at least seem to be able to shoot the ball consistently. I worry about what could happen if they miss a few shots and Michigan State goes on a run with the home crowd roaring in the background. But teams make runs every game, and it's not enough for me to move this away from a push.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Here is where the return of Valentine will be the most obvious. The Spartans lost the last game largely due to a terrible offensive stretch in the first half that saw them score 6 points in the final 10 minutes before halftime. Foul issues had removed one or both of Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris from the game at various points in time, and Michigan State's offense looked like Iowa under Todd Lickliter. The return of Valentine gives Michigan State back not only their best scorer and assist man, but the catalyst for their offense, period. Valentine is the only guy on the roster (outside of Harris to a lesser extent) that can create his own shot and he's also the best at creating shots for others. He will likely draw more defensive attention, which could open open things up for Forbes, Costello, and others. So, I fully expect Michigan State to shoot the ball at a high clip tonight.
On top of that, I fully expect Michigan State to grab offensive rebounds at will. The defensive glass was an issue for Iowa the last time these two teams played, and it's been an issue all year long for the Hawkeyes, who are currently 245th in the country and 12th in conference play when it comes to defensive rebounding. Tom Izzo has a roster full of big-bodied forward/center types that he gives minutes to, and they all can grab offensive rebounds. There's a reason they are 20th in the nation and 1st in the Big Ten in that category.
Anyway, Iowa doesn't look to match up very well with Michigan State on this side of the ball. It's not because Iowa's defense is bad, it's just because MSU's offense is just really, really efficient. Iowa was able to win the last game because they forced an uncharacteristic (for Michigan State) amount of turnovers in the first half and Michigan State shot the ball absolutely pathetic from the floor. If they can do that again, they have a legitimate chance to win. But, considering Valentine is back and Forbes and Harris likely won't both be in early foul trouble again, the odds probably aren't all that great, especially with this game being played in East Lansing.
Advantage: Michigan State
Style of Play
Iowa plays a slightly more up-tempo game than Michigan State, but don't let the 2 possession difference per game fool you. Michigan State's offense can grind it out if they want to, but Denzel Valentine can really push the ball up the court in a hurry. He's a small forward, but his point-forward abilities after he gets a defensive rebound allow him to get out and start the break. So Iowa is going to need to make sure they get back on defense. That hasn't been so much of an issue lately, but it was an issue in their game against Dayton.
That being said, both teams are above average in time of possession on offense. Iowa's normal possession lasts about 16.1 seconds (64th in the country), while Michigan State's is 16.6 seconds (116th in the country.) Both teams also force their opponent to hold the ball a lot longer than they do. Iowa's foes are 299th in the country with an average possession of 17.8 seconds. Michigan State, though, has opposing teams holding the ball for an average of 18.5 seconds which is 337th in the country, further showing that their defense really forces you to run your offense to perfection and get a good shot. They don't get a lot of turnovers, but they make you work for absolutely every look you get.
Shooting-wise, both teams are much above average at putting the ball through the net. But Michigan State has the slight advantage, overall, thanks to their two-point shooting. On defense, both teams are very good at contesting shots, but again, Michigan State has the overall advantage because their opponents are managing only 40% on their two-point field goals and 26% on their three-point field goals. And those numbers are pretty much the same since conference play started, too.
When it comes to the type of shots they like, Iowa's selection is very similar to the NCAA average, while MSU favors two-pointers a bit more. On defense, Michigan State's D seems to suppress three-point attempts, which is something we saw last time when when only 23% of Iowa's field goal tries came from deep. And while Iowa's defense doesn't seem to stymie threes the way Michigan State does, the Spartans offense only attempted 20% of their shots from downtown last time. Denzel Valentine shoots the bulk of this team's threes outside of Bryn Forbes, though, so that 20% number will probably increase tonight.
As for scoring, neither team gets a huge percentage of their points from the free throw line. But Iowa gets more of their value from three-point range, while Michigan State gets more inside the arc. On defense, you can see that teams seem to be having success getting to the line and converting at a decent rate against Michigan State. But the fact that teams shoot and make fewer threes against them means they give up a way below average percentage of points from deep.
Iowa, meanwhile, is the opposite. They don't let opponents get to the line all that much, and opponents are only making 67% when they do get there. Instead, that high volume of threes opponents shoot, means that Iowa's enemies get an above average percentage of points from deep, even though they haven't shot them well against the Hawkeyes this year. That could be something to watch with Valentine and Forbes both being great outside shooters.
Players to Watch
Note: A quick reminder on how this chart works. The horizontal axis represents a player's usage rage, while the vertical axis represents a player's offensive rating. The circle size represents playing time (bigger means more time on the court). This chart should tell us how involved in the offense the player is, how efficient they are in doing so, and in how many minutes per game do they accomplish all of this.
Not much has changed from the last time these two battled a few weeks ago, so if you are wanting to know more about what each Spartan player does well, I encourage you to go back and read the last preview.
Instead, I want to talk more about specifics for this game.
First of all, pay attention to the scale for the vertical axis. Note that Michigan State's scale starts at 100, as opposed to Nebraska's, whose started at 80. That's important to note because this Michigan State team is very good on offense, and everyone on the roster has an offensive efficiency above 100. So even the low guys on the chart are efficient.
Now, obviously, Denzel Valentine is the main guy. His return is huge for Michigan State, and I will be curious to see how Iowa tries to guard him. I would imagine Peter Jok will likely draw this match up, barring Fran moving Uthoff or Uhl out of the post and onto the perimeter. I actually think Uthoff or Uhl on Valentine might be a better potential match up, but Fran has them almost strictly down low this year and Jok has made improvements on the defensive side of the ball. I wouldn't be surprised if Iowa trapped hard on any Valentine ball screens, in an attempt to force the roll-man to beat Iowa's help defense. No matter what Iowa does, though, Valentine is likely going to get his points. They just need to make him work extra hard for them.
After Valentine comes Bryn Forbes. The man who has had a million articles written in the past few weeks about how his former high school teammate (and also Denzel Valentine's high school teammate), Anthony Clemmons, shut him down in Iowa City. I'm sure Forbes is looking for payback, but what concerns me more is the fact that Clemmons likely still isn't 100% healthy. He's mentioned being about 95%, which is better than what he was against Nebraska, but Iowa will need his ability to fight through screens and not give Forbes any breathing room to shoot from deep.
In the post, Matt Costello dominated the second half of the last game when Adam Woodbury quickly went to the bench with three fouls. Woodbury needs to stay out of foul trouble in this one because his post defense on Costello is important. However, when he is getting a breather, Dom Uhl is going to need to grab more than 2 defensive rebounds in 21 minutes. Uhl did some nice things against Michigan State, but the Spartans killed Iowa with offensive rebounds and Uhl crashing the boards could prevent that from happening again.
As for Iowa, Jarrod Uthoff had a rough outing against Michigan State earlier, but he is still a match up nightmare for this team. Izzo has a roster full of forward types that are either quick enough, but too small to guard him or tall enough, but too slow. Depending on who's defending him at the time, Uthoff should be able to post up, shoot over the top, or attack the rim off the dribble. This could be a game where Uthoff and Valentine go back and forth trading offensive blows.
Outside of Uthoff, Mike Gesell's play is key again. Michigan State's defense couldn't keep him out of the paint last time, and Tom Izzo isn't big on the whole zone defense thing. That means Izzo needs to find someone who can cover Iowa's point guard, and neither Lourawls Nairn or Matt McQuaid could keep Gesell in front of them last time. One thing Izzo may do is call Deyonta Davis' number more than usual in this one. Davis is Michigan State's 6'10" spring-loaded freshman center who blocks shots like it's nothing. He had 3 blocks in the first half of the last game (which coincided with the time that Iowa was struggling to shoot the ball well), but was sent to the bench after a block in the first half (which coincided with Iowa shooting better to end the half) and was then strangely left out of the rotation in the second half (which, again, coincided with Iowa shooting a 68% eFG% and Mike Gesell living in the painted area). Davis loses playing time to the veteran presence of Costello, and also because Izzo uses a deep rotation of guys in the post. But, from a Michigan State point of view, it may be smart to have their best rim-protector out there to avoid a repeat of last game.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #11, Michigan State #4
Projected Outcome: Iowa 69 (27%), Michigan State 76 (73%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.03, Michigan State 1.13
Projected Possessions: 67
Kenpom favors Michigan State here thanks to the home court advantage, and the advantage that Michigan State's offense appears to have over Iowa's defense. I won't lie, I'm keeping my expectations for a win low in this one. I know the Hawkeyes have the talent to win this game, but I also know that Michigan State is an outstanding team and the Breslin Center is not an easy place to play for opposing teams. I want a win more than anything else, of course, but a competitive loss won't be the end of the world. A blowout loss on national TV could hurt Iowa's national perception as a contender a bit, but a competitive game or even a win could prove the opposite.
Win or lose, this should be a fun one. We've got two highly-ranked Big Ten teams, with two of the absolute best players in the country going head-to-head on the national stage. This is why we watch sports, you guys. Let's hope for a competitive game (or a big Iowa win), but let's also have some fun.