IOWA (19-8, 10-6) VS. MICHIGAN STATE (18-9, 10-6)
For the first time in three years, Iowa has won two consecutive games after February 15. The Hawkeyes have moved into second place in the Big Ten standings, are basically a lock to get into the NCAA Tournament, and have pole position for the elusive Big Ten Tournament double bye.
So, of course, it's time for a trip to East Lansing.
Trips to East Lansing in the last billion years (approximately) have been a total disaster for Iowa hoops. Last year, Iowa went north in that weirdo two-game conference preseason portion of the schedule and lost by 22. In 2017, Iowa lost by 11 in a game that wasn't really that close. The Hawkeyes actually won big up there in 2016, in the midst of a nine-game winning streak that took the program into the national top three, but it was Iowa's only win at Breslin during McCaffery's tenure to date. Lickliter never won there. Alford lost his last two at MSU by a combined 62 points, and one of those teams won 25 games; not only did he never win a game there, he never got within single digits.
Is there a reason to believe this season? Well, it's been a weird one in East Lansing. Sparty started the year ranked No. 1 for the first time, and somehow dropped out of the Top 25 entirely last week (they moved back to No. 24 this week). MSU has also lost its last two home games, to Maryland (understandable) and Penn State (understandable at the time; maybe not so much now). Michigan State hasn't suffered a truly bad loss since Thanksgiving Week, but they also haven't beaten a team in the Kenpom Top 25 since January 5 (0-4 since then). And Iowa is currently No. 22.
That's about it for the good news, though. Despite the handful of losses, MSU is as formidable a team as Iowa has faced this season. Sparty is second nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed. They're seventh nationally in three-point percentage allowed and two-point percentage allowed. And it's an Izzo squad: If you miss that shot, you're not getting another chance. Michigan State isn't as formidable offensively, but they look a lot like Iowa, great at ball movement (they're first nationally in assists per field goal scored; Iowa is sixth), good at just about everything else.
The Spartans are led by Cassius Winston (6'1", 185), the senior guard on which all those lofty projections were based. Winston hasn't been as good as he was last season, when he posted superhuman efficiency numbers in 33 minutes per game. He's played fewer minutes, with his lowest efficiency rating since his freshman year, a merely-excellent assist rate, and a five-point drop in two-point shooting percentage. He's still the team leader in scoring (18.3 ppg), assists (5.7 apg) and steals (1.3 spg), and an unbelievably great guard.
The only other Spartan getting more than 30 minutes per game is forward Xavier Tillman (6'8", 245), who leads the team in rebounding (10.3 rpg) and is second in scoring (13.6 ppg) as an undersized center. The rest of the rotation is a neverending string of guards and wings, all seemingly interchangeable to meet the needs of Izzo against a particular opponent. Sophomore wing Aaron Henry (6'6", 210, 9.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) has been the only other consistent starter.
There might be one other piece of good news: They don't really have anyone to match Garza. When other teams haven't had the goods in the post, they've largely led The Peacock fly and shut down everything else Iowa tried, and Michigan State could certainly attempt that. Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu and Vernon Carey have lit up the Spartans already this year, but weren't enough alone to win.
Some games can be determined by such tactical decisions. But there are other opponents in particular venues where the advantages feel systemic. This is one of those, and if Iowa is going to win, it's going to have to overcome a whole boatload of history.