IOWA (6-1) VS. MICHIGAN STATE (6-2)
Iowa's fall of discontent continues Monday night with a brutal early road trip to East Lansing, Michigan. Waiting there: The No. 9 Michigan State Spartans.
Michigan State has been a bit inconsistent so far this season. On the one hand, they lost in overtime to Louisville last week and struggled to put away Rutgers in their Big Ten opener Friday night. On the other hand, they hung tight with Kansas and beat Tennessee Tech by 68 points, which I honestly didn't know was possible.
While the results are incomplete, Izzo's team is doing Izzo team things. Michigan State is posting a 56 percent effective field goal rate and shooting 41 percent from three. Their rebound rate is among the top thirty nationally on both ends of the court. Opponents are really struggling from the field against Sparty, especially in the paint, and about one in eight opponent shots are getting blocked. The formula is tried, and it is true: Contest every shot, own the glass, and wear down opponents until second-half shots are consistently open. This is nothing new.
The Spartans are somewhat more experienced than usual, though. Izzo is starting five upperclassmen for the first time since 2014-15. Scoring has come mostly from three sources: Senior point guard Cassius Winston (6'1", 185) leads the team in points (17.9 ppg), minutes (31.1 mpg), assists (7.1 apg), and steals (1.5 spg). His assist rate is among the best in the nation, and he's shooting 43 percent from behind the three-point arc. Backcourt mate Joshua Langford (6'5", 210) is even better from behind the arc (45 percent) and comparable in total scoring (17.5 ppg).
In the frontcourt, center Nick Ward (6'9", 245) doesn't have the minutes of the backcourt duo, but he drops in 14.5 ppg and draws fouls like a magnet (a staggering 10 fouls per 40 minutes played). Power forward Kenny Goins (6'7", 230) doesn't score much (5.5 ppg), but is a rebounding machine (10.0 rpg). Production at small forward is intermittent, with Kyle Ahrens (6'6", 210) and freshman Aaron Henry (also 6'6", 210) splitting most of the minutes and combining for 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Xavier Tillman (6'8", 245, 7.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) provides depth in the frontcourt, while Matt McQuaid (6'5", 200) and Foster Loyer (6'0", 170) complete the backcourt rotation.
Iowa has not beaten the Spartans or won in East Lansing since that game in January 2016 that briefly launched the Uthoff/Jok team into the stratosphere. Aside from that 2015-16 season where Iowa won twice, McCaffery is 1-10 against Izzo in his time at Iowa. History is not on our side, nor is the obvious MSU strategy. The mere thought of Bohannon/Moss/McCaffery trying to defend two perimeter guys who are combining for 35 points per game is terrifying.
But if you're looking for a reason for opimism, it's this: Michigan State doesn't generate turnovers and fouls all the time. Louisville was +18 free throws on Sparty in that overtime win last week. Their free throws allowed rate is among the nation's worst, and only Kansas and Tennessee Tech failed to get more free throws than MSU. On paper, it looks like Sparty's strategy is to fall back into half-court defense, contest shots, foul if things don't go correctly, and destroy everyone on the boards. Meanwhile, Iowa is back to first nationally at generating fouls and has made more than 77 percent of attempts. It is fully possible that Iowa runs up something like +25 free throw attempts Monday night, which could be a 20-point lead before we even consider jump shooting. And no matter how good Michigan State is, it will struggle to win if Iowa is spotted a 20-25 point lead at the stripe.