Iowa City, Iowa – Every single time that Iowa has shown flashes of life in Big Ten play, they’ve managed to let all the momentum slip away just days later.
After coming back from double digits to beat Illinois on the road and snap a five-game conference losing streak? A blowout loss to bottom-feeder Rutgers.
After thoroughly dominating a usually pesky Wisconsin team in front of a raucous Carver-Hawkeye Arena? Allowing 98 points on the road to Nebraska, who had never scored that many in a Big Ten game.
And after scoring 57 points in the second half against Minnesota and grabbing their third conference win? An anemic offensive performance in a 24-point loss to Penn State.
A win against the Nittany Lions on Saturday would have been huge. The Hawkeyes will need all the momentum they can get heading into Tuesday’s nationally-televised tilt with 4th-ranked Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The signs are already looking bleak. Jordan Bohannon was ill most of the week, scored just three points in reduced action on Saturday and did not practice Monday. If he’s not at 100%, the Hawkeyes’ already slim chances of doing the unthinkable have gotten even slimmer.
The last time a top-5 Michigan State team visited an unranked Iowa team was December of 2015, when a Jarrod Uthoff-led Hawkeye squad upset the #1 Spartans, and then beat them in East Lansing two weeks later. A lot has changed in those two years, and this time around, the unranked Iowa Hawkeyes aren’t an NCAA Tournament caliber-team, and the top-5 Spartans look pretty close to elite.
There aren’t many things the Spartans don’t do at an exceptionally high level. They’re ranked in the top 15 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency – the only team in the country ranked that high in both categories. Their only losses are to three top-20 teams – Duke, Ohio State, and Michigan. They have the lowest opponent’s effective field percentage in the country, and the 5th-highest mark on offense. They rank in the top-10 in two-point and three-point offense, and are tops in 2-point defense and blocked shot rate. Basically the only thing Michigan State is not elite at is forcing turnovers, which they rank in the bottom third of the nation in.
The Spartans have a balanced attack, with five different players – four sophomores and one freshman – scoring in double figures on the season. Forward Miles Bridges hasn’t taken the massive step forward many expected after his surprise decision to forgo the NBA Draft, but he’s still playing at an all-Big Ten level with 17.4 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game. Nick Ward scores his 13.2 points at a 69.1 shooting percentage while averaging 7.7 boards a game. 6-foot-11 freshman phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. puts up 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, and the backcourt of Joshua Langord and Cassius Winston scores more than 25 points per game and averages 8.4 assists to 3.8 turnovers.
Then, the Spartans have a lethal three-point shooter (Matt McQuaid), an experienced senior point guard (Tum Tum Nairn), a veteran big man (Gavin Schilling) and a crafty freshman forward (Xavier Tillman) all coming off of the bench. Everywhere you look, there’s depth, experience and talent. The roster is pound-for-pound the best in the Big Ten.
Prediction: Michigan State wins, 90-72. This may even be too conservative of a prediction. This one is going to get ugly pretty quick, especially if Bohannon is ailing. The home-court advantage that usually comes with a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (the 2015 victory was in front of a sell-out crowd) due to the 8 P.M. weekday tip-off for a struggling team.