7:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Michigan State -8.5, Over/Under: 151
Anther week and yet another crucial matchup in the Big Ten, as the No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes battle the No. 24 Michigan State Spartans from the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Michigan. In a year in which there hasn’t been any semblance of a clear-cut favorite to win the National Title, no conference has embodied that notion than the Big Ten where nearly half of the conference remains in play for First Place with just over a week left in the Regular Season. Both of these teams fit that description, trailing Maryland by two games in the league table, which brings us to Iowa (19-8, 10-6 in Big Ten), who with a strong finish and a decent showing in the Big Ten Tournament figure to receive a solid seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. In terms of Strength of Schedule, the Hawkeyes have competed against the thirteenth-toughest slate in the country, and in terms of tourney criteria rank Third Overall in Quadrant One and Two wins, which is of course bolstered by the conference in which they play, for the general train of thought has been that there could be anywhere from nine to perhaps even eleven teams selected to the Big Dance in three weeks time. Winners of nine of their last twelve outings, Fran McCaffrey’s charges have knocked off five ranked opponents during that stretch, the most recent of which was Ohio State last Thursday in an 85-76 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The hosts were shorthanded without Guard, C.J. Fredrick (10.7 PTS, 49.7% FG, 46.7% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 2.6 AST, 17.2 PER), who missed his second straight game with a sprained right ankle, having to make do with a rather short Rotation, which in the end turned out to be all they needed to get the job done. Towering Senior Center, Luka Garza (23.7 PTS, 55.8% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 9.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.7 BLK, 35.6 PER), dominated the visiting side in the Paint, scoring a game-high Twenty-Four Points on an efficient 9-of-15 shooting from the field (60.0%), along with Six Rebounds and Four Assists. The Big Ten’s leading scorer tallied his twelfth consecutive contest in league play with twenty or more points, which is good for the longest run by anyone in the conference in twenty years. In fact, it’s the longest such streak at Iowa in nearly half a century. Sophomore Guard, Joe Wieskamp (14.9 PTS, 44.6% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 20.5 PER), added Thirteen Points but struggled on 4-of-12 shooting from the field (33.3%), including a miserable 1-of-6 from downtown (16.7%), but the team as a whole had no such issues bombing away from the perimeter, nailing 10-of-25 attempts (40.0%). This is where the limited Bench came into play, for Bakari Evelyn (3.2 PTS, 32.5% FG, 30.2% 3FG, 1.4 REB, 1.9 AST, 5.8 PER) and Cordell Pemsl (2.8 PTS, 47.8% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 13.8 PER) combined for Twenty-Four Points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor (75.0%), Eight Rebounds, Six Assists, and a pair of Steals, with the former drilling 3-of-5 Threes (60.0%), and the latter accounting for all of those Rebounds. Evelyn, a Graduate Transfer from Valparaiso, tied his season-high of Fifteen Points, providing the shooting and spacing that McCaffrey had received this season from the missing Fredrick, who ranks second on the team in Three-Pointers (40) and leads them in Percentage (46.7%). As a group, the Hawkeyes shot a scorching 55.8% from the field, assisting on Eighteen of their Twenty-Nine Field Goals, while only committing Nine Turnovers. On the flipside, they relegated the Buckeyes to a meager 41.9% shooting overall, including 9-of-30 from beyond the arc (30.0%), despite getting pummeled on the glass (Minus-10) and permitting Eighteen Assists. They’ll need to brace themselves for a battle on the boards as they travel to East Lansing, where the Spartans are sure to put them to the test, for while Iowa has been the most efficient offensive team within the Big Ten, leading the league in Scoring (77.0), Field Goal Percentage (45.0%), and Assists (16.6), they’ve been pushed around on the defensive end, particularly in their eight losses; they’ve allowed an average of 89.9 Points on 52.3% shooting, including 43.2% from long range, along with 17.8 Assists, while getting outrebounded by a cumulative total of Twenty-Four Boards. Furthermore, in their two meetings with Michigan State last season they were embarrassed by a total of Thirty-Seven Points, shooting a miserable 38.6% and 32.8% respectfully, and were humbled on the glass by a margin of Twenty-Seven Rebounds.
Meanwhile, creeping back into the Rankings is Michigan State (18-9, 10-6 in Big Ten), who despite their wildly inconsistent form in league play remain just two games out of First Place in the Big Ten. However, if the Spartans are going to change the narrative of their 2019-2020 campaign, then they’ll have to do it the hard way considering the gauntlet that awaits them down the stretch. Tom Izzo has long prided his teams on putting them through hellish non-conference terrains in an effort to harden them for the Big Ten haul, with his charges typically getting better as the season progresses. That doctrine will be put to the test over the next few weeks, for the remainder of the schedule is downright daunting; after tonight’s meeting with No. 18 Iowa, the Spartans hit the road for encounters with No. Maryland and No. Penn State, followed by Ohio State in the Season Finale at the Breslin Center. That would mean that eleven of their twenty-seven opponents were ranked at the time of play, including a ridiculous seven of their final nine, and that doesn’t even take into consideration what will likely be facing them in both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Compounding this degree of difficulty is the fact that this is a team that simply hasn’t been very good of late, losing four out of five before finally running Nebraska off their own floor in last Thursday’s 86-65 victory. During that aforementioned stretch, they held up their end of the bargain defensively, relegating the opposition to 39.4% shooting overall, but they could not overcome their own shortcomings on the offensive end, which has been a problem throughout the term. Izzo has lamented the fact that they just haven’t been able to knock down many open shots over the second half of the season, but that’s putting it rather mildly from a man who typically doesn’t mince his words. Yes, his troops have shot better than their opponents over those five outings, but they’ve been very poor from beyond the arc (31.5%), while nearly committing as many Turnovers (11.6) as Assists (12.6). Furthermore, they’ve shown a propensity to put teams on the Free-Throw Line, with opponents 6.1 Free-Throws per Game, and outscoring them by 5.0 Points per Game in that regard. Critics will point that Michigan State has become far too reliant on the exploits of Senior Guard, Cassius Winston (18.3 PTS, 42.9% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 22.1 PER), who has proven to be the only player that can create his own shot, let alone stretch the Defense. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year has looked fatigued in his final term in East Lansing, with his percentages plummeting across the board to 42.9% from the Field, including 45.0% inside the arc, while securing fewer Rebounds (2.4) and dishing out less Assists (5.7), though committing more Turnovers (3.2). During that documented run, he’s shot just 39.0% overall, including 39.1% on Two-Pointers. Thankfully, he and his teammates looked more like the unit that entered the campaign as Preseason No. One in their victory over Nebraska, particularly on offense where they shot over 50.0% as a whole for the first time in a dozen games, netting 51.6% of their attempts from the field, including 13-of-27 from three (48.1%), their best showing since late December. Leading by just three points at Halftime, the visitors exploded in the middle of the Second Period on a 22-8 run which saw a number of players contribute, featuring Junior Forward, Xavier Tillman (13.6 PTS, 53.4% FG, 28.3% 3FG, 10.3 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 2.1 BLK, 25.9 PER), who totaled Ten Points, Eleven Rebounds, and a pair of Blocks just days after his wife had given birth earlier In the week (congrats to the Tillman Family), fellow Forward, Aaron Henry (9.6 PTS, 43.7% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.8 AST, 14.6 PER), who added Thirteen Points and Nine Rebounds, while the unsung duo of Gabe Brown (7.6 PTS, 44.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 14.0 PER) and Kyle Ahrens (3.7 PTS, 43.9% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 11.0 PER) combined for Thirty-One Points and 9-of-14 shooting from downtown (64.3%) off the Bench. Of course, Winston led the way with a game-high Twenty-Three Points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%), including 3-of-4 from deep (75.0%), Two Rebounds and Six Assists. The Spartans limited the Huskers to 34.8% shooting and outrebounded them 47-24, but afterwards it was apparent that Izzo was rather upset with his team’s sloppy play in possession, committing Twenty Turnovers which in turn led to Sixteen Points for the home side. No team in the conference has committed more Turnovers than Michigan State, who have given it away a remarkable 13.1 times per contest.