But in a game that saw MSU play as flat-footed and slow as the team had all year, the Spartans still found a way to win, and win big.
With five and-a-half minutes left in the first half, a pair of Cassius Winston free throws gave Michigan State a three-point lead. From that point until roughly four minutes into the second half, the Spartans played some of their worst basketball. Iowa went on a 26-15 run during that nearly 10-minute stretch, flipping a three point MSU lead to an eight point deficit. At this point, it was clear whatever attempt at fixes during halftime hadn’t worked. MSU looked slow and tired, like the perfect example of a college team about to lose a game it shouldn’t.
That’s when a switch was flipped, and it was clear that Winston was making the difference. The junior point guard hit a pair of three-pointers on either side of a TV timeout. An Aaron Henry layup and a Matt McQuaid three - assisted by Winston - gave MSU the lead, and the route was on.
By the end of the game, the analysts would say the game was closer than the final score made it look. However, had it not been for Iowa scoring against the MSU bench, the Spartans had a chance to win by at least 20 points, instead of the 82-67 final.
There were too many small moments and big plays from MSU to detail in Thursday’s win. However, one thing is abundantly clear – the Spartans are a true title contender.
While playing dominant basketball in late January has never won anyone a national championship, this team is arguably playing the best regular season basketball the program has seen in years. Last year’s team, which undoubtedly had more pure talent on the roster, would not have won this game. Denzel Valentine’s 2015-16 Spartans lost exactly this game – twice.
Michigan State hasn’t seen a dominant run like this through the regular season since the 2013-14 season. That team stumbled down the stretch, earning a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but still nearly reached the Final Four, losing to eventual national champion UConn.
This year’s MSU squad has all of the stereotypical features of a Final Four team – an experienced team leader at point guard, physically dominant post-play and a defense that can shut an opponent down.
Again, this isn’t an argument for why Michigan State will win a championship this season. Instead, it’s just a warning to get on the hype train now. Things are starting to have a familiar feel around East Lansing. While Duke will almost assuredly get the most attention through the rest of the season, Michigan State is going to be on everyone’s radar and the way they are playing now, everything short of earning the top-line in a region is going to feel like a let-down.