There's no easy answer to the question of who Iowa's primary basketball rival is because there's no shortage of contenders. Many would say Iowa State, others would say Wisconsin, a few would say Minnesota, and some historically-minded folks might suggest Illinois. One team that no one would suggest is Michigan State, and for good reason: the series is wildly lopsided (Michigan State has won the last eight games in the series), neither team considers the other a rival, and they've rarely played games with particularly big stakes. So, no, Michigan State is not Iowa's rival. But they might just be Iowa's nemesis.
Since Fran's arrival in the 2010-11 season, Iowa has played only one Big Ten team more frequently than Michigan State (Northwestern, who Iowa has played 10 times). Yet there's no Big Ten team that Iowa has beaten less often in that same time span, either -- just once in nine tries. (Obviously, this doesn't include this year's new additions to the Big Ten, Maryland and Rutgers.) Iowa has beaten every other Big Ten team at least twice, including the other Big Ten heavyweights over the last five years: Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Wins over Michigan State have proven maddeningly elusive. Michigan State has also ended Iowa's run in the Big Ten Tournament three times in four years since Fran's arrival -- and they might have made it four in four years if Iowa hadn't melted down in the first round against Northwestern last season.
Iowa has lost games just about every way possible to the Spartans, too. They've lost close games and they've lost blowouts. They've lost games that were high-scoring shootouts and games that were low-scoring slugfests. They've lost games where they led and games where they trailed for virtually the entire game. They've lost games because of torrid shooting and they've lost games because of terrible officiating. If there was a way to lose a basketball game, chances are Iowa found a way to do that in one of their many showdowns with Michigan State over the last five years.
The sting from two of those losses still lingers -- the 59-56 rockfight in the 2013 Big Ten Tournament and the 71-69 OT loss in Iowa City a year ago. The 2013 Big Ten Tournament loss was probably the Iowa-MSU game with the biggest stakes: an Iowa win would likely have elevated them to the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. It was also a game that featured a substantial Iowa lead that was frittered away (Iowa led by 12 midway through the second half, but shortly thereafter found themselves on the wrong end of a 22-2 run) and some of the most frustrating (if you're feeling charitable) or downright awful (if you're feeling less charitable) officiating in recent memory.
The OT loss a year ago was similar in some respects: Iowa started off playing well and built a solid lead, but they were undone by a long dry spell (Iowa went a staggering 14:50 in the second half and overtime without a field goal), some more shaky officiating, some more bad breaks and bounces, and, as Fran noted after the game, a lack of toughness. The stakes in that game were lower -- an NCAA bid didn't hinge on an Iowa win -- but it was yet another opportunity for Iowa to get the Michigan State monkey off their back, as well as a chance to cement their place at the top of the Big Ten pecking order last season and claim a resume-building top-10 victory. Unfortunately, Iowa once again came up short.
This year's Iowa-Michigan State game features even lower stakes: neither team is ranked and it's too early in the season for the game to have too many ramifications in terms of a conference title or an NCAA tournament berth. More than anything, it feels like this game is another chance for Iowa to finally beat Michigan State for the first time in five years. Iowa and Michigan State appear fairly evenly matched at the moment -- Iowa is KenPom's #33 team while Michigan State is KenPom's #17 team, but home-court advantage is enough to make Iowa a slight favorite (55%, per KenPom). Michigan State has struggled this season, but is coming off one of their finest performances of the season, a 70-50 thrashing of Indiana in East Lansing and they have the offensive efficiency to cause problems for Iowa's defense (not to mention the usual stingy Spartan defense). But Iowa is coming off two solid performances of their own to open league play and they have the size and interior scoring pop to give Michigan State problems.
Iowa beat Michigan State the very first time that Fran and Izzo matched wits, a stunning 72-52 thumping in 2010-11 that featured sizzling Iowa shooting (58% FG) and an all-around dreadful performance by the Spartans. They've come up short in eight tries since then. It's time to end that streak.
IOWA VS MICHIGAN STATE (SINCE FRAN MCCAFFERY'S ARRIVAL)
@CHA W 72-52
@EL L 85-66
@BTT L 66-61
@EL L 95-61
@BTT L 92-75
@CHA L 62-59
@BTT L 59-56
@CHA L 71-69
@EL L 86-76
IOWA'S RECORD VS EVERY OTHER BIG TEN TEAM (SINCE FRAN MCCAFFERY'S ARRIVAL)
MICHIGAN ST: 1-8
OHIO ST: 2-5
PENN ST: 4-2
*Iowa is 0-0 against Maryland in league play. They did beat Maryland in the 2013 NIT, though.