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Iowa is looking to start the conference schedule 3-0 with Tom Izzo and Michigan State coming to town on Thursday night. Can the Hawkeyes pull off the win? Let's take a look at the numbers.

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We are only in the eighth day of January and getting ready to enter only the third scheduled Big Ten game of the season, but I think we can all agree that this has been a roller coaster ride of a season thus far. People wanted to jump off the early season bandwagon after back-to-back losses to Texas and Syracuse, only to find new hope when Iowa went to Chapel Hill and pulled off the upset. Of course, what new hope had been rekindled after beating Roy Williams, was quickly dashed when Iowa, yet again, lost back-to-back contests, this time to in-state foes. But, alas, here we are again with a fresh batch of optimism because Iowa has started the conference slate 2-0, beating Ohio State on the road, and suddenly looking like they may have found an offense that works for them.

If Iowa wants to prove that their recent offensive success against Ohio State and Nebraska is no fluke, then they get the perfect opportunity tonight when Tom Izzo brings his Kenpom-ranked #19 defense into Carver-Hawkeye arena. This year's Michigan State Spartans are not last year's Michigan State Spartans, meaning they are doing a bit of rebuilding this season. That being said, they are still ranked #17 by Kenpom, and they are coming off a 70-50 thrashing of a high-powered Indiana offense. I think Iowa matches up with this Spartan team in the paint better than Indiana did, though, and the Hawkeyes play much better defense to boot. Add in the fact that this game is being played in Iowa City, and I think Iowa has a good chance to win.

It won't be easy, of course; Tom Izzo is still coaching Michigan State, after all. But all indications are pointing toward a close, hard-fought battle that should be fun to watch. Big Ten Powerhouse has this labeled the "Big Ten Game of the Week," while Kenpom gives this match up the highest thrill score of any game being played Thursday night. Let's hope the Hawks can pull one out.

When Iowa Has the Ball


The offensive side of the ball for Iowa is probably where this game will end up tilting in one direction or another. The Hawkeyes aren't a great shooting team from the field, but they have been making up for that deficiency this year by limiting turnovers, grabbing offensive rebounds, and, more recently, finding a way to get to the free throw line on a regular basis. And Iowa is going to need to do all of those things tonight because this Michigan State defense is not allowing their opponents to torch the nets very often this year.

In addition to being a team that is good at contesting and blocking shots, they also are a great defensive rebounding team. Iowa has relied heavily on getting second chance opportunities to mask their shooting woes, so the rebounding battle (on both sides of the ball) should be extremely important to this game. When it comes to limiting free throws, Michigan State has been 7% better than the average Division I team at doing so this year, but Iowa has been trending upward the last three games, putting up free throw rates higher than their season average in all three. That could be a small sample size, but I've liked Iowa's shot selection more recently, and their attempt to get the ball to the basket has paid off with an improved free throw rate. Finally, one silver lining with this Michigan State defense is that they don't force a whole lot of turnovers. Iowa has been good at limiting them, so hopefully the turnover bug won't be a contributing factor to too many empty Hawkeye possessions in this one.

Per usual, the important thing for Iowa on offense is to take advantage of the strength they have in their front court. Michigan State is much tougher inside than Nebraska, and Branden Dawson, Gavin Schilling, and Matt Costello won't be pushed around in the paint. However, none of those three guys is taller than 6'9" and Dawson is only 6'6", so the Hawkeyes should have the height advantage in the middle. If Adam Woodbury was ever going to break out of his slump, this would be the game to do it, as Iowa will really need someone who can bang down low. I love what Gabe Olaseni brings to the table, but I always worry about how he will perform against guys who play strong down low. And, needless to say, the Hawkeyes will expect big games from Aaron White in the paint and on the free throw line and from Jarrod Uthoff out on the perimeter. If Iowa struggles with the Michigan State interior defense, outside shooting could really help loosen things up.

Again, though, I'm going to ask my usual question: Can Iowa play to their strength? They have the last two games, but their track record before that has been spotty and Michigan State is a good defense. I'm cautiously optimistic, but I'm still going to give the Spartans the upper hand here.

Advantage: Michigan State

When Michigan State Has the Ball


This Spartan team is pretty balanced on offense. They have a similar shooting profile to Iowa, but they are much more successful when they do put up a shot. On the year, the Spartans are shooting 51.8% from two point range and 40.1% from outside. Luckily for Iowa, this Michigan State team attempts three pointers at a below average rate, rather than hitting opponents with a long range blitzkrieg, the way someone like Iowa State does. Feeding the post is a big part of this offense, and that may be a good thing for Iowa, whose big men will gladly contest shots in the post all night long. So, yes, Michigan State shoots the ball well, but Iowa does have a chance to hold them to below their season average if the Spartans don't go too heavy on the three ball.

When it comes to the other factors, Iowa has a huge advantage in keeping Michigan State off the line and has a slight advantage in turnovers; although it's not like Michigan State just hands the ball to the other team on a regular basis. What they are very good at, however, is grabbing offensive rebounds at a high rate, which could be an issue since Iowa does have the tendency to struggle on the defensive boards. Michigan State dominated Indiana down low and on the offensive glass, and Iowa can't afford to have that happen to them. As a team, Michigan State grabbed 50% of their missed shots, which led to 17 second chance points and 30 points in the paint. Dawson and Schilling by themselves combined for 24 points and 10 offensive rebounds. That's how Michigan State wants to play, and Iowa can't let them do that.

I think Iowa's defense can hang with Michigan State's offense, especially in the lane. My only concern is Michigan State's ability to hit threes. They don't bombard their opponent with them, but against a team like Iowa, who can't shoot to save their lives, that outside shot could allow Michigan State to hang around a lot longer than we would all like.

Advantage: Iowa

Team Shooting Tendencies


(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)

By now we are all familiar with Iowa's shooting woes.


Michigan State doesn't really have that issue except for that little area on the right elbow.


Like pretty much every team that Iowa has played this year, the Spartans are the better shooting squad from the field, while the Hawkeyes are better from the free throw line. Michigan State has held opponents to a slightly lower shooting percentage from the floor this season, but both teams are very strong in that area.


Looking at shooting tendencies, this is a first for me. Iowa's offense and Michigan State's defense have exactly the same shot selection. What's even weirder is that they both line up with the Division I average. Hmm.

When Michigan State has the ball, they shoot fewer threes than the normal team, despite the fact that they are very good at making them. Iowa's defense is pretty standard as far as their shot selection allowed this season, so I'm hoping they can hold Michigan State to their usual or make them take fewer attempts from downtown.


Finally, looking at scoring, we see that Iowa's offense is so bad from the floor and so good from the charity stripe that Iowa gets a pretty large chunk of their points on free throws.

Michigan State, on the other hand, shoots the ball so well and rarely gets to the line, so it's not all that surprising that they get more points than average from two and three point field goals.

Opposing Players to Know

Michigan State isn't exactly the most up-tempo team in college basketball. They aren't afraid to get out in transition, but they are just fine to run their half court offense, too. In limited time watching that offense this year, I've noticed that they usually run set plays that allow them to a) get shooters in position to catch the ball and fire from distance; and b) get their post players in position on the block for an entry pass inside. Here's an example of a set against Maryland I noticed a handful of times in which the Spartans will first set up a three point shot and then next look to set up a pass to the post.

In the above Vine, the Spartans run Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes (two of their best three point shooters) off of back screens, have them loop around to the other side of the court, and run off of down screens in order to open them up (ideally) for a three, but in this instance a long two point attempt for Trice.

Iowa better be ready for that look, as Trice is averaging 13 points per game and Forbes is putting home 10. Trice is the more balanced scorer, as he is about 50/50 on two point attempts and three point attempts this year. Forbes, though, has taken 72% of his field goal attempts from outside this season and is hitting 45% of them. Trice is the more dangerous distributor of the two, however, as he plays point guard in this offense and is 35th in the nation in assist rate.

But like I said before, the same set that is designed to get Trice and Forbes open looks at threes, is also used to get Dawson, Schilling, and Costello touches in the post.

This Vine shows the same half court play, but this time Forbes catches it on the opposite wing and finds Dawson in the post. Dawson then immediately goes to work backing down his man en route to a high-percentage shot. Michigan State will also do the same thing on the other side of the court, and if it's not Dawson who gets the ball, it's Schilling or Costello.

Out of the big men, Dawson uses the most possessions and takes the most shots when he is on the court. He averages almost 11 points per game, operating almost exclusively in the paint. His shooting has gone down this year, but I'm guessing that's the result of a broken wrist that I believe he is still wearing a brace for.


Outside of the offense he provides, Dawson and Matt Costello are neck-and-neck for the title of best rebounders on the team, and Dawson has the best steal rate on the team.

Finally, Denzel Valentine is another big name to watch on Thursday night. I didn't mention him above because what little I've watched of Michigan State, it seems like his offense usually tends to come outside of set plays. Besides Trice, Valentine is usually the other main guy on offense that can create his own shot. Often times Michigan State will set a ball screen on Valentine's man and let him go to work. Valentine is leading the team with almost 14 points per game and is one of the best shooters on the team. Oddly enough, he is actually shooting better on his threes this year (46.3%) than his twos (43.9%).


Additionally, he's the second best assist man on the team, so he's kind of like what I talked about with Terran Petteway in that he can create his own shot but he can also find the open teammate. The only difference in that comparison is that he shoots better and setting ball screens for him isn't 90% of Michigan State's offense.

What Kenpom Thinks

Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #33, Michigan State #17

Projected Score: Iowa 66 (54%), Michigan State 65 (46%)

Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.99, Michigan State 0.97

Projected Possessions: 67

Unsurprisingly, Kenpom is expecting a defense-heavy game. It's not hard to see why, since Iowa's offense still has some question marks and Iowa's defense seems to match up with Michigan State's offense so well. Add in the home court, and you can see why his numbers project a close win for the Hawkeyes, even though they are ranked lower.

To reiterate the keys to the game, it all starts with Iowa's front court. Big games will be needed from Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff, but other guys will need to step up, as well. The Hawkeyes have the length advantage on this Michigan State team, but the Spartans are not afraid to throw down in the middle. Iowa needs to be prepared for Michigan State's low post trifecta to try and outmuscle them down low. This would be a good time for Adam Woodbury to wake up from his funk, but it also provides the opportunity for Gabe Olaseni to prove that his game is more than just finesse. It would also be nice to get some offensive production out of the guard spot, but if Mike Gesell is dishing out assists, Iowa can live with that if their big guys are scoring.

Iowa's offense worries me more than their defense in this one. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this game look similar in nature to Michigan State's slugfest with Maryland a few games back. It wouldn't be the prettiest thing in the world, but a win is a win. I wouldn't say a win here is a must, but starting out 3-0 in the conference would be pretty huge for this season and this program.