The #9 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-4, 6-3) will take on a down Michigan State Spartans squad (8-6, 2-6) to reverse a couple negative trends: five straight losses against MSU and two defeats in a row this season.
Sparty is facing a more drastic turnaround, having lost three which span across a 20-day break between games. They’ve lost 67-37 at Rutgers & 79-62 at Ohio State in their two games back. Michigan State is scoring 72.2 points/game while allowing 71.6. It’s their worst offense in 5 years and worst defense in the Tom Izzo era — 26 seasons. Per possession data don’t show a team as generationally poor, but they still aren’t pretty.
While Hawks are saying the right stuff about this being the same Michigan State they’ve struggled against - the losing streak extends past anyone on the current roster, coaches not included - it’s clear this bunch is different than past iterations of Izzo squads.
Now, this doesn’t mean tonight is a low stress game for Iowa. Their 6-3 in conference record is no better than Iowa’s start the the conference schedule last season with much lower expectations. Further, arguably no 2021 wins which exceed any of Iowa’s from 2020: the best win this year, per KenPom is 24th ranked Purdue. Last season, Iowa had three wins in their first six which ended up more highly ranked than the Boilermakers currently are (Maryland, Michigan, & Wisconsin).
Aaron Henry (F, 6’6”, 210 lbs): The junior wing currently leads MSU in points & assists at 13.1 and 3.4 per game, respectively. While his stats are respectable, they fail to fill the void of what they lost from last year’s team, primarily Cassius Winston as the lead guard. He lacks premier efficiency with an eFG% of 44% and an assist:turnover ratio approaching 1:1 (1.13:1).
He’s been pushed a little more into the role of a primary ballhandler than Izzo would have liked, with Rocket Watts underperforming. However, he has the athleticism to finish at the rim like Iowa faced against Ayo Dosunmu on Friday and could pose similar problems despite the 2021 track record.
100% a guy who could come from nowhere to light Iowa up from deep as they sag off to protect driving lanes. He currently shoots 21% from deep and has gone 0/11 the last three games. In MSU’s two Big Ten wins, he’s a combined 5/9 from three.
Joey Hauser (F, 6’9”, 220 lbs): The junior transfer from Marquette has not lived up to his billing as a replacement for Xavier Tillman on either offense or defense. Though he is solid around the basket at 65%, his shot from deep has not matched his 43% from his freshman season at Marquette (currently rests at 34%). His per-40 numbers are up, though, with his 11.9 PPG coming in just 23 minutes of action as Tom Izzo juggles six guys in the post, per KenPom.
Rocket Watts (G, 6’2”, 200 lbs): The sophomore has immense potential but has not yet harnessed it in taking over the point guard role after playing mainly off the ball last year. He started the year strong, scoring 20+ points in two of their four first games. However, he’s reached double digits just twice since then and hasn’t notched more than 2 assists in their last six games.
Is Iowa who we thought they could be? There’s honestly a case that Iowa is benefitting in rare fashion from high preseason expectations as they have more often been a signature win for an opponent than notching one themselves. In fairness, Iowa’s best wins have not necessarily come at the best time in terms of opponent ability - North Carolina and Purdue were still finding themselves - but they have failed to capitalize on other opportunities circled when the schedule came out: Gonzaga and Illinois.
The Michigan State games were similarly circled, though their season has gone much differently than expected. Yet the Hawks are arguably entering tonight at a desperation deficit for a third straight game, which resulted in losses to Indiana and Illinois. At some point, Iowa stops becoming a “signature win” and starts becoming a good-but-maybe-not-great team who might need some breaks to reach the Sweet 16 in the tournament.
I’m not pressing the panic button, but my guard is up.
What does the backcourt rotation look like? It’s a point which has been pounded into the ground, but Iowa’s best point guard is Jordan Bohannon, when he’s making shots. His defensive deficiencies become more livable when he’s pouring in 4 or 5 treys a night as he stresses the defense to the halfcourt line. Similarly, when CJ Fredrick is healthy, nobody can match his shooting and defensive ability.
Yet when neither of those are available, it forces Fran McCaffery to get creative. He seemed to find something in Tony Perkins in the second half of the Illinois game, as Ayo Dosunmu was held in check that period. There was also a moment where Bohannon was leveraged as the shooting guard in a set play, which is something which could get ramped up if Joe Toussaint plays alongside him.
Can Luka Garza be defended one-on-one? In Iowa’s three conference losses, Garza has shot 27/55 (49%) from 2 and 3/12 from deep, both well below his season averages. Liam Robbins, Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Kofi Cockburn were all able to guard LG credibly to limit double teams and lock down Iowa’s perimeter.
This is not to say that double teams don’t work or aren’t a viable defense against the Peacock but when a defense is dictating what he faces versus Garza pressing the issue, it changes the calculus for Iowa’s offense.
Hauser has started every game for MSU but will be the smallest guy set to face Garza since Maryland’s Galin Smith at 6’9” / 235. If the Spartans are forced to send consistent double teams, it should open up a number of opportunities for Iowa.
When both of these teams beat Duke and North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, they looked like potential juggernauts. Now both are trending down, though the Hawkeyes “down” is a far cry from MSU’s 2-6 conference start.
Still, for the Hawkeyes to have a great season, they need to avoid losses against teams in the bottom third as the conference. As weird as that might be, it describes Michigan State.