Michigan State puts its unbeaten record on the line on Tuesday night when the Spartans travel to Iowa City to open conference play against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa has a veteran team which returns four starters from last season. THey were 9-3 in the non conference, with the best wins coming against Florida State and a Van Vleet less Wichita State. THe three losses were all competitive, as the Hawks lost neutral site games to Notre Dame and Dayton and a terrible road game versus Iowa State,where Iowa blew a huge lead against a good Cyclone team.

MSU is expected to once again be without its best player, as Denzel Valentine continues to recover from knee surgery.

BACKCOURT – If it seems to you that Mike Gesell has been in Iowa City for about 37 years, you’re not alone. The 6’1″ senior is once again running the Hawkeye offense. While Gesell has never quite met what were rather high expectations for him coming out of HS, he isa 4th year starter who is putting together a solid final campaign. He’s shooting better than he ever had (44/47%) and is averaging 7 assists per game versus just a shade over 2 TOs per contest. The only strong criticisms against him are that he doesn’t shoot enough (only averaging a bit over 7 ppg) and that he’s never been a strong defender. He’ll be joined by Anthony “Sapp” Clemmons, a 6’2″ senior guard, Lansing native and former HS teammate of Valentine and Bryn Forbes. Clemmons is also having a nice final year, scoring 8.8ppg on 45/30% shooting and he’s averaging almost 4 feeds per game. He’s also Iowa’s best perimeter defender. Clemmons is what he is…never a great deep threat but a solid athlete with good strength who can play either on or off the ball. The new starter this year is 6’6″ junior Peter Jok. After showing flashes during his first two years in Iowa City, Jok has emerged as a scoring threat for this team. His combination of good athleticism and decent skill sets (40/37% this year) makes him more ofa pure wing than anyone else Iowa’s had since Devyn Marble left town. Jok is the team’s second leading scorer at 13.3 ppg,so he’s definitely a guy MSU will be focused on.

Fran McCaffrey will play a couple of freshmen off his bench at the guards. 6’4″redshirt freshman Brady Ellingson gives IOwa some size and shooting from the wing in about 12 mpg. 6’5″ freshman Andrew Fleming is seeing about 9mpg and may also see the court in this game. He’s struggled with his shot to date this year,however,so probably not a likely candidate for big production.

FRONTCOURT – The big gun for Iowa is 6’9″ senior Jarrod Uthoff. Uthoff has long been a high level all around player for Iowa but as a senior, he’s taken an even bigger role,something IOwa desperately needed from him with Andrew White graduating after last season. He’s averaging 18.3ppg and 6.3 rpg, as well as just shy of 3 blocks per contest. Uthoff is a tough cover because his size allows him to do damage on the blocks but he has a good handle and range on his jumper,which makes him effective facing the basket as well. He’s joined by 7 foot senior Adam Woodbury. Woodbury is another guy who never quite met expectations coming out of HS but he is a veteran presence inside. He’s tied with Uthoff for the team lead in rebounding and is hitting 57% from the floor, leading to 8.8 ppg so far. Woodbury is also a guy disliked by a lot of opposing fanbases due to his questionably physical play at times.

Iowa has a trio of young player who will see time upfront. Dominique Uhl is a 6’8″ sophomore whom IOwa thinks can be another multi faceted forward like White and Uthoff. He’s having a nice year, putting up 7.2 ppg and 4.5 rpg on 44/41% shooting in almost 18mpg. Freshman Nicholas Baer is playing almost 15 mpg and giving the Hawks some energetic play off the bench in his redshirt season. 6’7″ freshman Ahmad Wagner has also become a rotation regular in about 10mpg. He’s strictly an around the rim kind of offensive player right now.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Defensive rebounding – I think MSU has been a bit below par in their last two games. Iowa is not a great rebounding group but neither was Northeastern or Oakland. You don’t want to give IOwa second chance baskets and since both teams want to play fast, controlling the glass is critical for MSU’s transition effort.

2. Guard them – THe old McCaffrey teams which occasionally struggled to shoot aren’t around this season. Iowa shoots well overall and from deep. WHat they haven’t done much is draw fouls. Relative to a lot of other teams, their 16.7 FTA per game isn’t very high. This is not a big off the dribble team. That *should* play to MSU’s strengths. If there’s been a problem area for this Spartan team so far,it’s been with occasional struggles to guard penetration. As long as that form holds,I think MSU has a chance to hold Iowa well below its usual shooting numbers.

3. Step Up – Just as was the case in the OU game,MSU needs guys like Forbes and Harris (and others) to be consistent offensive threats. Can’t win this game in a sludgey way, most likely…MSU is going to need to score.

4. Post – MSU’s had success in recent years attacking Iowa inside. Other than Woodbury,they don’t have true “big men” types on the roster. This can be a game where Matt, Gav and DD make some noise in the post. It probably needs to be.

5. Mistakes – Iowa doesn’t force a ton of TOs but they really do value the ball well,committing only about 10 TOs per contest. Obviously, MSU needs to be careful to not end up with a big disparity in this area.

OVERALL – This is a stiff test. McCaffrey’s teams have not fared well against MSU during his run, and with Valentine out and the game being played in Iowa City, they have to be feeling they’ve got a legit chance at finally getting one over on the Spartans. Add in the #1 ranking,unbeaten record, etc and the stakes are even higher.

I feel pretty good about this one for some reason. It will be a challenge, no doubt about that,but I think MSU learned some things about itself against OU and I think we’ll see a better start in this game. The Spartans certainly can’t waltz in and expect a victory…they’ve got to control their defensive glass, limit penetration and avoid excessive mistakes (especially Pick Six type TOs). This is certainly one MSU can lose…even with Denzel,that was the case. However, if MSU does the things this group is fully capable of doing,they can extend the streak.