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#18 Hawkeyes face #24 MSU for second place in the Big Ten

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Can the Hawkeyes snag the rare win in East Lansing against the Spartans?

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In a rare turn of events, the #18 Iowa Hawkeyes (19-8, 10-6) head to East Lansing to face the #24 Michigan State Spartans (18-9, 10-6) as the more highly ranked team. The last time this happened, it was the 2006 Big Ten Tournament and Iowa won a barnburner, 53-48.

After coming into the season as the top-ranked team in the country, Michigan State has faced more than their share of adversity throughout the season and come into the matchup having lost four of their last six games. According to KenPom ($), they’ve amassed their 10-6 record against the weakest conference slate in the Big Ten (Iowa’s is the third weakest).

Cassius Winston continues to be the straw that stirs the Spartans’ drink, tallying a team-best 18.3 points/game and 5.7 assists/game, while averaging 40% from three and 87% from the free throw line. One downfall of his game is the turnovers he’s amassed, at 3.2 per game. It normalizes to a much more normal turnover rate of 19%, especially considering he finishes 30% of Spartan possessions (via made shot, missed shot rebounded by the defense, or turnover).

Xavier Tillman is, once again, a low post presence on this squad. With no more Nick Ward occupying simlar space in the paint, he’s seen his points tick up to 13.6 per game and adds 10.3 boards per game for one of three averaged double-doubles in the conference.

With the season-long injury to Josh Langford, Izzo has struggled finding a consistent third scorer. Sophomore Aaron Henry and freshman Rocket Watts have both demonstrated potential throughout the season and average 18.1 points between them. Gabe Brown (36%), Kyle Ahrens (43%), and Foster Loyer (46%) are three capable shooters. Brown may start, having had 16 this season, though Michigan State has cycled through 9 starting lineups this year.

They’re a formidable squad, as they most often are at Breslin Center, and they have a desperation about them having lost two straight at home. But they’re also susceptible.

Can Luka Garza get going?

In his three games against Sparty, he’s averaged 9 points on 13/32 shooting against their stout interior defense. Garza is a different player than he was back then, as is MSU’s front line. Tillman is a load, and will give The Peacock all he can handle. However, if Garza can force his hand via foul trouble and get into the reserves (sophomores Marcus Bingham & Thomas Kithier), Iowa’s offense will stand a better chance as MSU will be forced to send more double teams. That’ll loosen it up for Joe Wieskamp on the perimeter, who feels DUE for a big game.

Garza let it slip that he’s nursing a couple ailments ($) and may not be 100% in a game the Hawks will need 110%. If that’s the case, Iowa will once again need Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kriener to provide secondary strength in the interior.

What shooting team shows up for the Spartans?

It is no secret that Iowa’s zone defense gives opponents plenty of open looks. One opposing coach went so far to say “they don’t guard you.” ($) Such is life limiting foul trouble for a mildly plodding big man who needs to be on the floor 35 minutes a game. Yet the effort to “confuse” has not resulted in consistent production from deep from opponents, as they shoot a middle-of-the-pack 33.8% from deep.

But when teams have it going, that probably means a win. Just once has an opponent shot better than 38% from deep and lost to Iowa (North Florida). The 38% milestone is one MSU has hit 12 times this year, including eight conference games where they are 6-2.

Weirdly enough, only three of those 12 times came at home.

(Great, now I’ve jinxed it’ll happen)

Can Iowa win the energy plays?

In conference play, MSU has turned the ball over a league-high 19.1% of possessions while turning teams over just 14.6% of the time (13th). Both represent an opportunity for Iowa to match the energy they showed in the opening of their game against Ohio State, where they played with purpose on their way to an early 18-3 lead which was never matched. Joe Toussaint will factor in huge, as will CJ Fredrick If He’s Healthy.

Perhaps the bigger concern is on the glass, where Iowa is yielding an offensive rebounding rate of 30.2%. They’ve been better with the larger starting lineup, though Ohio State was able to generate offense that way by recovering 14 offensive rebounds on 38 missed shots.

Michigan State hasn’t had the offensive rebounding rate of past squads but will likely place an emphasis on it after seeing how Iowa can be exploited in the zone defense. It’ll require a team effort, particularly from Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp. They’ll need to play physically and finish possessions before getting into transition offense.

While the likelihood of a win is typically low, the path for a win is there: play smart, get The Peacock flying, and win 50/50 balls and this Hawkeye team has shown they can do it.