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No. 19 Iowa takes on No. 6 Michigan State

The Hawkeyes will face an opponent that excels on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As Iowa basketball gears up for its second game against the Michigan State Spartans this season, Hawkeye fans can be forgiven for being somewhat apprehensive considering the outcome of the first matchup. The Hawkeyes came into East Lansing ranked 18th in the country and one of the feel-good stories of the infant college basketball only to be thoroughly dismantled by a Michigan State squad that seemed determined to assert its championship pedigree and crush the upstart Hawkeyes where they stood. Michigan State’s 90-68 victory wasn’t achieved simply because of the Spartans’ superior athleticism, but also because the home team seemed far better equipped to handle the spotlight of a marquee matchup than an Iowa team composed of players that, for the most part, had yet to play in games of such significance.

Iowa enters its Thursday night contest against the Spartans riding a five-game winning streak and coming off a historic shooting performance in its recent victory against Illinois and finds itself faced with an opportunity to establish its place among the class of the Big Ten. While the Hawkeyes have shown their ability to weather adversity in their response to blowout losses against both Michigan State and Purdue, Thursday’s game marks the beginning of a brutal four-game stretch in which the Hawkeyes will be forced to navigate treacherous road environments and high-stakes home games against the conference’s elite teams. A win against Michigan State would not only illustrate how far this team has come since early December but would elevate Iowa’s national profile and signify the program’s resurgence to relevance after the nightmare season that was 2017-18.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Thursday’s game:

1. Can Iowa prevent Michigan State from dominating in the paint?

One major factor that enabled Michigan State’s decisive victory over the Hawkeyes during their first meetup was the Spartans’ ability to score at will near the basket. Junior forward Nick Ward finished a perfect 10-10 from the field with all his points coming inside the three-point line, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman posted some of their best performances in the green and white, and the Spartans put the entire conference on notice that they boast arguably the deepest and most talented frontcourt in the Big Ten. Despite shooting a meager 25% from beyond the arc, the Spartans still managed to score 90 points against the Hawkeyes due in large part to their dominance in the paint.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery blamed Michigan State’s ability to wreak havoc inside on his team’s poor execution of its zone defense, as their abysmal rotation frequently resulted in open looks or Iowa’s guards and small forwards being forced to defend larger opponents in one-on-one situations near the rim. While the zone has frequently helped the Hawkeyes elevate their defensive performance over the course of the season, the Spartans had no difficulty picking apart the various zone and press looks the Hawkeyes threw at them over the course of the game. Michigan State totaled a whopping 28 assists against Iowa, and players like Cassius Winston, Jeremy Langford, and Kenny Goins had little difficulty finding the weak spot in Iowa’s zone and throwing probing passes designed to exploit those weaknesses.

Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, switching back to man defense is hardly a solution to contain the Spartan offense. Cassius Winston plays with a remarkable quickness and excels at penetrating the lane, and it is hard to imagine players like Jordan Bohannon and Maishe Dailey being able to guard him in man on a consistent basis. Instead, the Hawkeyes will need to rely on the zone and hope they can execute it significantly more effectively than they did during their trip to East Lansing. Michigan State ranks sixth in the nation in offensive efficiency and is the only team in the Big Ten to outpace the Hawkeyes in this metric (Iowa currently ranks 11th), but the Hawkeyes will need to find some answer to the Spartans’ offensive attack in order to keep pace with them this time around.

2. Can the Hawkeyes keep the Spartans off the glass?

The Spartans traditionally excel at rebounding under head coach Tom Izzo, and this year’s team is no exception. Michigan State has pulled down the third most rebounds in the nation with 826, 44 of which came against the Hawkeyes during the first meeting between these teams. While Tyler Cook has shown improvement in his offensive rebounding acumen this season, he and his teammates will be hard-pressed to find many second-chance opportunities against a team that has collected the second-most defensive rebounds in college basketball.

Iowa will need to capitalize on its superior size if it has any chance of keeping the Spartans off the boards Thursday night. Despite their rebounding prowess, none of the major contributors to this Michigan State team are taller than 6’8, which should theoretically give the high-flying Tyler Cook, the long-armed Ryan Kriener, the tenacious Nicholas Baer, and the towering Luka Garza a fighting chance to match the Spartans in the rebounding column. Garza will be particularly important in his capacity as a rebounder; the sophomore has seen his offensive rebounding numbers fall this season due in large part to the immobility caused by his prior ankle injury, but his 6’11 frame combined with his relentless motor could theoretically help the sophomore develop into a rebounding machine. A strong game from Garza and his teammates on the boards could go a long way to helping the Hawkeyes hang with the Spartans on Thursday night.

3. Can Iowa hit the “big” shots when it needs to?

Michigan State came out hot against Iowa to start the second half, and the Hawkeyes desperately needed to hit their shots in order to quiet the raucous home crowd and stop the Spartans’ run. Instead the Hawkeyes missed 19 of their first 20 second half shots and the Spartans sprinted out to a massive lead from which the Hawkeyes could never recover. In total, the Hawkeyes managed to shoot only 32% from the field and 27% from three on the night. While much of this can be attributed to poor shooting by the Hawkeyes, some credit must also go to the Spartans who have elevated their defense during conference play, holding Big Ten opponents to a measly .353% shooting. The return of senior Matt McQuaid, Michigan State’s best perimeter defender who missed their first game against Iowa, will hardly make things easier for the Hawkeyes this time around.

Iowa can certainly mitigate Michigan State’s fantastic team defense by continuing its hot streak of getting to the free throw line (something the Spartans have largely struggled to prevent teams from doing this season), but eventually the Hawkeyes will need to make big shots at important moments in the game in order to emerge victorious. Home field advantage will make this an easier endeavor than it was in East Lansing, but the Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to find the types of open looks they saw against Illinois. Iowa is fortunate to have a trio of guards in Isaiah Moss, Joe Wieskamp, and Jordan Bohannon capable of creating their own shots and punishing defense in catch-and-shoot situations. As much as Iowa could use another dominant performance from Tyler Cook reminiscent of Michigan State’s last trip to Iowa City (see the video below), a strong shooting night from Iowa’s perimeter players would be equally if not more impactful in helping the Hawkeyes solve the vaunted Spartan defense.

Iowa’s December trip to East Lansing was an unmitigated disaster, but a strong showing against the Spartans could help place the Hawkeyes among the Big Ten’s elite. Iowa will be out for revenge against Michigan State, but will need to elevate its play to heights not yet seen this season in order to get it.