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Men’s Basketball Preview: Michigan State Spartans at Iowa Hawkeyes

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Having now lost four of the last five games, can Michigan State regroup and build toward the postseason?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

“Compete.”

Following Michigan State’s 79-74 loss to Illinois on Saturday, head coach Tom Izzo used this word no fewer than nine times in his postgame press conference. When the media asked Coach Izzo if there was anything that his team could take from the loss that would benefit them as the postseason approaches, “compete” was his simple answer.

From the standpoint of the Big Ten race, the loss to Illinois means that the Spartans are no longer in that specific competition. There will be no regular season Big Ten championship banner in East Lansing this year. What the Spartans need to do now is to improve and to try to approach, match or exceed the level of performance that the team showed in January en route to an 8-2 conference record.

If Michigan State can consistently emulate the energy, focus and level of competition that it showed in the second half against the Illini, there is still a chance that Spartans fans will ultimately view the 2021-2022 season as a success. As it stands now, the jury is still out.

Michigan State will next have a chance to prove itself on Tuesday night on the road at Iowa. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

The Spartans (18-8 overall and 9-6 in conference play) are reeling after four losses in their past five games. Michigan State is currently ranked No. 24 in the most recent Coaches Poll, but the Green and White have dropped out of the AP top-25 for the first time since late November.

Iowa overview

The Hawkeyes are 18-8 overall and 8-7 in conference play, a full game behind the Spartans. Iowa is currently not ranked in the Coaches Poll, but the Hawkeyes check in at No. 25 in the AP poll, just a single point ahead of Michigan State.

Overall, the Hawkeyes have had an up-and-down season. Despite starting the season picked to finish only ninth in the Big Ten, Iowa started the season 7-0 with a win at Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Then, the Hawkeyes opened Big Ten play having to play at Purdue, versus Illinois and at Wisconsin in three of the team’s first four conference games. Iowa lost all three of those contests and has been fighting to get over .500 in the conference standings ever since.

Iowa went through its own mid-season slump in late January, where the Hawkeyes lost three-out-of-four games, including a double-overtime loss at Penn State. But the Hawkeyes have rallied to win four of the last five games, including a big win at Ohio State on Saturday, which is Iowa’s first “quadrant one” win of the year. The Hawkeyes will look to build on that momentum at the expense of the Spartans on Tuesday night.

Iowa by the numbers

Iowa is currently ranked No. 16 in overall Kenpom efficiency margin and No. 19 in the NET. For comparison, Michigan State is ranked No. 27 in Kenpom and No. 28 in the NET. The Vegas line for the game has opened with Iowa as a 6.5-point favorite, which is consistent with Kenpom’s projection of a six-point loss for the Spartans (71 percent chance of a straight-up loss), while ESPN’s “basketball power index” gives Iowa slightly better odds at 76 percent. On paper, the computers both think that this is the toughest game remaining on Michigan State’s regular season schedule.

Tuesday night’s game marks the first and only regular season matchup between the two schools. Overall, Iowa’s profile is consistent with what Big Ten fans have come to expect from the Hawkeyes since head coach Fran McCaffery arrived in Iowa City: a good offensive team and a very questionable defensive team.

Specifically, Iowa is currently ranked No. 1 in total scoring offense in the conference at 83.5 points per game. However, the Hawkeyes also ranked No. 13 in scoring defense at 71.5 points per game. For comparison, Michigan State ranks No. 6 in total offense at 72.8 points per game and No. 5 in total defense at 66.6 points per game.

Interestingly, however, Iowa is not one of the better shooting teams in the Big Ten. While Iowa is No. 4 in the Big Ten in field goal percentage overall at 46 percent, the Hawkeyes rank only No. 7 in conference play in effective field goal percentage at 50.3 percent. Michigan State is No. 3 in this metric at 52.3 percent. Iowa is also just sixth in the conference in three-point percentage at 34.6 percent as a team. The areas where Iowa makes up the difference are primarily in avoiding turnovers (No. 1 in the conference with a rate of just 12.1 percent), offensive rebounding (No. 4 at 29.8 percent rate) and tempo (No. 2 at 69.6 possessions per game).

Basically, if Michigan State can simply take as many or more shots as Iowa (by not turning the ball over and by rebounding), the Spartans have a great chance to leave Iowa City with a victory.

Let’s get personal

Iowa is led by sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who now leads the Big Ten in scoring at 23.4 points per game. Murray is also Iowa’s leading rebounder at 8.2 per game. For good measure, he also is shooting close to 37 percent from deep this year.

The Hawkeyes have three other players who are averaging double figures in scoring: sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery (11.0 points per game), senior guard Jordan Bohannan (10.7 points) and sophomore forward Kris Murray (10.0 points per game), who also happens to be Keegan’s twin brother. Of those three players, Kris Murray (39 percent from three-point range) and Bohannan (37 percent from behind the arc) look to be the most dangerous from the perimeter.

Other notable Iowa players include junior point guard Joe Toussaint and senior center Flip Rebraca. Toussaint leads Iowa in assists at 3.6 per game, but averages less than five points per game and shoots only 27 percent from three-point range on very low volume. Rebraca is averaging 6.3 and 5.8 rebounds per game.

When Rebraca is not in the game, Iowa tends to play the 6-foot-8-inch Murray twins together in the front-court. The Spartans will likely be able to counter with the Joey Hauser /Malik Hall combination, assuming that Hall is healthy following the Illinois game.

As for Michigan State, the big question is if this will finally be the game where Max Christie and/or Gabe Brown finally break out of their current shooting slumps. It will also be interesting to see if Tyson Walker continues to look for his shot as he did in the final 10 minutes of the Illinois game (in which he score 26 points, including 24 in the second half). The Spartans would also benefit from the continued rebounding, scoring and elevated defense from Julius Marble.

If the Spartans can get positive results in more than one of those areas, the chances for a Michigan State victory improve dramatically.

What’s at Stake

At this point in the season, both teams are competing for placement in the final standings, as well as for seeding in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Both teams are currently battling for the No. 6 to No. 8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament along with Michigan. The winner of Tuesday night’s game can think about challenging Rutgers for the No. 5 seed. The loser needs to worry about staying ahead of Indiana for the No. 9 seed.

As for the NCAA Tournament, most mock brackets currently project Michigan State as either a No. 5 or a No. 6 seed. The projections for Iowa are a bit more varied and range from roughly a No. 7 seed to a No. 10 seed. Both teams could use the win to bolster their resumes. We will find out on Tuesday night which team will get that boost.