Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa
When: 7:00pm EST, Feb. 2, 2021
TV/Radio: FS1/Spartan Sports Network radio
Iowa (12-4, 6-3): No. 5 (Kenpom)
1 - Jordan Bohannon (6’1” sr), Joe Toussaint (6’0” so)
2 - CJ Fredrick (6’3” so)
3 - Connor McCaffery (6’5” jr), Patrick McCaffery (6’9” fr)
4 - Joe Wieskamp (6’6” jr), Keegan Murray (6’8” fr)
5 - Luka Garza (6’11” sr), Jack Nunge (6’11” so)
Iowa is a superb offensive basketball team — the second best in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy (behind Gonzaga) — and everything the Hawkeyes do oozes skill and confidence on that end. While their defense continues to lag behind their offense, it is within shouting distance of being “good-enough” to allow the Hawkeyes to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament as they currently sit within the top-100 defenses in the country — top-75 would be better, but Iowa can get there in a matter of games if it strings together a few good defensive performances.
Frankly, their defense is borderline irrelevant because the only way that teams can hope to beat the Hawkeyes is by outscoring them — in their loss to Gonzaga, Iowa scored 88 points and their overtime loss to Minnesota saw them score 95 points. Only in their last two losses to Indiana and Illinois have the Hawkeyes been kept below 80 points. So how do they do it?
Well, as Zach Smith pointed out in his excellent article describing how best to defend Luka Garza, Iowa’s offense starts with the big man in the middle and presumptive Wooden Award winner. Garza’s immense size, incredible work-rate, scoring nous and shooting ability make him an absolute load for defenses. Garza’s worst outing of the season, against North Carolina, only occurred because UNC possesses a four-man front-court with huge, athletic bodies. And even in that “bad” outing, Garza scored 16 points, racked up 14 rebounds, and dished out four blocks and one steal.
Garza demands the ball, commands double-teams, and scores efficiently, generally, no matter what the defense does. His now-weaponized three-point shot means that his only deficiency remains his black-hole-esque lack of passing and assisting, but even this deficiency has improved as his assist-to-turnover ratio has tipped into positive territory this season.
Beyond Garza, Fran McCaffrey’s typically excellent motion offense is humming along like a dream this year. Iowa is playing fast, not turning it over, getting offensive rebounds, and drilling three-pointers. Every player in Iowa’s rotation can shoot three-pointerss except for Toussaint, and Nunge (and even those two can hit from beyond the arc). Bohannon, Fredrick, Wieskamp, and Connor McCaffrey all flow in and out of, around, and away from each other and Garza, and have built a web of shooting gravity that pulls defenses apart at the seams.
The shooting and passing acumen mean that teams consistently get punished when they inevitably double Garza, and when Iowa’s bench of Nunge, Toussaint, Patrick McCaffrey, and, above, all Keegan Murray step onto the court, things stay pretty much as difficult for defenses. It takes a herculean effort or an aberrant shooting night to beat Iowa, and the latter just haven’t happened this season.
Indiana defeated Iowa by hitting some three-point shots, getting to the line a ton, getting in Bohannon’s airspace, in particular, and not turning the ball over.
Luka Garza: Garza’s dominance is evident, and his offensive game does not really have weaknesses. There are only a handful of defenders in the Big Ten who can hope to deal with him one-on-one, and Michigan State, unfortunately, has none of them. Garza draws about seven fouls per game, and gets to the line about seven times per game as well — a major problem for an undermanned and generally undersized Spartan front-court.
Joe Wieskamp: After a somewhat down season as a sophomore, Weiskamp has really rounded into form in his third season. He is making shots from all over the court, rebounding nicely, and understands when to put his stamp on the game.
Jordan Bohannon: After missing most of last season with his hip surgery, and after a rough start to the year in terms of his three-point shooting, Bohannon has been the most efficient offensive player in the conference and is hitting 44 percent of his three-point shots in conference play (he takes about eight per game in conference play).
Keegan Murray: Murray is probably my favorite player on the Iowa roster — a lean, athletic, and tough forward with real handle and shooting ability. I actually think he should be playing more than he is right now, but against the Spartans he and Malik Hall should prove excellent foils for each other.
CJ Fredrick: The sophomore sniper may go down as the greatest shooter in Iowa basketball history and is shooting over 50 percent from three-point range (on about four attempts per game). He is solid, smart, and never turns the ball over. A real weapon to have on the court as your fourth best starter. NOTE: Fredrick has missed the last three halves of basketball for Iowa with a lower-leg injury of some sort. My guess is that he does go against MSU, but likely will not be at full-strength.
Hmm. Things are looking bleak, frankly, but every team has ways to attack every other team. As with most things in life and sports, execution of the plan of attack generally tells the story. While Iowa clearly has more offensive talent than Michigan State, far better shooters, a far more dominant “best-player,” a far clearer identity, a deeper functional rotation, and a set look in their eyes every time they take the court that speaks to their focus and sense of purpose, Michigan State can beat the Hawkeyes.
How would such a win occur? It starts with the Spartan offense. Michigan State must hit shots — probably to the tune of about 12-15 three-pointers on about 30 to 35 three-point attempts. Michigan State must get to the free-throw line and shoot a good percentage —probably shooting at least 20 to 25 free throws, and hit about 80 percent of them, if not better. Finally, Michigan State must prevent Iowa’s three-point shooters from dominating the game — run them off the line, contest them well when they do shoot threes, and never flag in those two efforts the entire game.
If the Spartans accomplish all three of those necessary tasks, then they will have a chance. Of course, this will require each individual player to have an outstanding game, and will require the team, collectively, to play with a level of focus, execution, and consistent competitiveness that Spartan fans have not seen all year. A huge part of this consideration will be the coaching staff’s job of rotating players, and putting combinations on the court that cause Iowa problems. The staff has failed to do that for a complete 40 minute game the entire season, but it is possible that this game will bring it out of them.
Aaron Henry, Rocket Watts, Joey Hauser, Joshua Langford, and one mystery performer will likely all need to have double-figure scoring performances. Aaron Henry, AJ Hoggard, Marcus Bingham Jr., and Malik Hall will also all need to register a number of blocks and steals — while Iowa rarely turns the ball over, Michigan State’s length and defensive activity may be able to “flip” that stat in favor of the Spartans.
We can expect Luka Garza to score over 30 points, and for at least two of the healthy Spartan bigs to foul out, maybe three. But if the Spartan bigs can make Garza work, and at least prevent him from having one of his more efficient nights (say 35 points on 24 shots from the field?), then the team will stand a far better chance of competing and making this game into a contest.
I very much doubt that Michigan State will be able to sustain the required levels of execution, focus, or want-to on both ends for the entire game. One or two lulls (particularly on offense) will doom the Spartans. Expect a fast-paced game, and expect Iowa’s size advantage in the post to doom this game to the loss-column.
Heading into this matchup, Kenpom predicts that Michigan State will win one more games this season. While there still will technically be plenty of games left, if the Spartans cannot turn the tide of the season within the next 10 days, you can expect Tom Izzo’s NCAA tournament streak to come to a crashing and crushing end this season.
There’s still time, but it’s getting late early.
MSU 75 Iowa 95