Though conference play provides a step up for many Big Ten teams, it is a bit of a reprieve for the Spartans, who have already faced three teams who were in last year’s NCAA tournament. Their two losses are away from home - Kansas as a part of the neutral Champions’ Classic, 92-87, and an overtime road loss to Louisville, 82-78. Their wins are highlighted as victors of the Las Vegas Invitational (UCLA and Texas) and Friday night’s road victory against Rutgers.
Though Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson were early entrants into the NBA Draft from last years’ squad, Michigan State remain a relatively experienced and continuous squad, according to KenPom ($). Juniors Joshua Langford, Nick Ward, and Cassius Winston have kept the team afloat as all three average over 14 points a game.
Winston, specifically, looks to be another potential kryptonite for this Hawkeye team. Akin to Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice, he is incredibly capable from range as well as finding teammates. Though his three point shooting is a modest 43.4% compared to Trice’s, he is averaging a Big Ten-leading 7.1 assists a game.
Ward provides the beef down low, as Michigan State’s most prolific scorer inside. Then he’s on the court, he is shooting 26.4% of the Spartans’ shots and draws 9.9 fouls per 40 minutes. For comparison, Tyler Cook is drawing just 6.9 fouls per 40 and it feels like he is living at the free throw line. Minutes played is what is holding back his free throw rate (.870 free throw attempts-to-field goal attempts) from being nationally ranked by KenPom.
Perhaps the most impressive year-on-year improvement is from Langford, who’s improved across the board. Though his usage rate has ticked up a small margin to 23.9% of possessions, his shooting has improved his efficiency to bring his scoring average to 17.5.
Seniors Kenny Goins, whose go-ahead three pointer versus the Hawkeyes last year remains one of the more inexplicable shots by an opponent (he’s a career 25% shooter from deep), and Kyle Ahrens are the likely starters alongside the three juniors. If Matt McQuaid is able to go, he will factor in as well, and Xavier Tillman has been impressive for the Spartans off the bench backing up Ward. All four fill in gaps, as Goins leads the team with 10 boards a game, McQuaid’s and Ahrens’ shooting helps the Spartans average 41.5% from three, and Tillman is a key part of a defense which forces opponents to shoot only 40.7% from two.
As the team staring down the barrel of an 0-2 conference start, it’s imperative Iowa does the best they can to assert themselves to open the game. While there is no specific Spartan who is a particularly weak link defensively, they are collectively bad at keeping teams off the free throw line. Though the number was particularly offensive against Louisville (.774 FTA/FGA!), four other games have seen rates above .400. With Tyler Cook and Luka Garza down low, Iowa should continue to build their offense inside-out.
Another piece to getting it going early is how Joshua Langford has asymmetrically asserted himself on offense. Throughout much of the season, it has been very much a “one half or the other” type of mindset from the junior. If Iowa can keep him from getting clean looks early, they might very well shut him down for a full half. Though the possibility exists for him to go off in the second half like he did last year - 11 of his 15 points came in the second frame - any work Iowa can do to prevent him from putting together his first full game is well worth it.
Iowa also gave up a rough 1.29 points per possession in the second half against Wisconsin. While some of that was due to impressive shot making by Trice, there should be a renewed focus to ensuring easy baskets are limited.
Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss are averaging 16.2 points per game between the two of them but they are simply taking too many shots to get there. The two are shooting just 32.2% from the field (32.7% from deep) and their points are buoyed by little over 6 coming from the free throw line. Neither Maishe Dailey (4/16) nor Connor McCaffery (1/6) have provided the necessary spacing off the bench to let Iowa’s big men do work down low, either.
So Iowa must attack. Joe Wieskamp has impressed with his effort and occasional scoring outburst - his first half against Pittsburgh kept the Hawkeyes in it. Connor McCaffery has also showed a penchant for getting into the lane and is shooting over 60% from two. His herky-jerky left-handedness is helping him get to the line too: only Tyler Cook is drawing more fouls per 40 minutes for the Hawkeyes and his free throw rate leads the team. His FT % is second to only Dailey (86.1% to 90.9%).
While it would be a bridge to far to ask Connor to match Winston’s production in a role off the bench, his size and skill provide a potential mismatch, especially when Foster Loyer replaces Winston.
Tonight is another tough one and a loss should not affect how Hawkeye fans view this season to date. However, if Iowa is able to play with fight all game long, they have enough skill to punch up and steal a win against a top 10 team.
If the Hawkeyes are going to have the season they’re capable of, a couple heists will be required.