Michigan State gets a chance to avenge its sole loss to date of the season on Thursday night when they host the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa has had a week to prepare for this game and MSU has been off since their Sunday afternoon victory over Penn State, so both teams should be well rested and have had a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened in the first meeting in Iowa City and what may be different this time around.
Iowa hasn’t won at Breslin in 23 years, in a game played just after the tragic death of Hawkeye forward Chris Street. That was one of just two wins the program has in the building overall. Tom Izzo is 9-2 against Fran McCaffrey and 29-10 overall versus Iowa.
BACKCOURT – Mike Gesell is quietly having an outstanding senior season. He’s not taking a ton of shots, which is part of why you don’t hear many people talking about him, but when you drill down into what he’s doing overall, you have to be impressed. He’s scoring at 9.9ppg but doing so on 48/50% shooting. He’s averaging almost 7 assists per game and his ratio is off the charts good at 3.25/1. In the first meeting, he ripped MSU up, scoring 25 points, with 11 of them coming via the free throw line as a result of consistent dribble penetration. The one area wher Gesell isn’t great is on the defensive end…he can be taken advantage of at times due to less than spectacular athleticism for the position. Anthony Clemmons is sort of the opposite to Gesell. He’s never become a good shooter but he has outstanding toughness and good athletic ability which allows him to check at a reasonably high level. He’s also developed into a very strong secondary ballhandler for Iowa, averaging over 3 feeds per game and a 2.62 ratio. Peter Jok is the other starting wing and is really the only Hawk besides Uthoff who has the kind of offensive game likely to carry his team for longer stretches. He hasn’t shot as well as they’d expected (39/35%) but still well enough to be a threat and his size and athletic ability make him a guy who can score in a variety of ways. He’s second on the team at over 13 ppg.
Brady Ellingson and Ahmad Wagner are the two guys who will see backcourt reserve minutes in this one. Ellingson is contributing 4.3 ppg in about 12 mpg while Wagner is at 2.4ppg in 9.4 mpg. Both have good wing size and athleticism and are much better inside the arc than beyond it so far in their young Iowa careers.
FRONTCOURT – Everything starts with Jarrod Uthoff. The multi-dimensional 6’9″ senior is having a fantastic senior season, the best individual year of anyone during the McCaffrey era. He’s at 18.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg and has been very efficient in putting up those numbers as well. He’s also become a huge defensive presence…he’s averaging 3.3 blocks per game and had 6 in the first meeting with MSU. Often times, they come via weakside help, so his presence is something MSU players need be aware of when breaking toward the rim…just beating your man may not mean you get the easy layin you think is coming. Adam Woodbury is a reliable presence inside for Iowa. He’s never become the star some thought he might but he knows his role, shoots a high percentage and is now leading the team in rebounding at 6.2 per game. In a very simplistic sense, I think you can compare him to our Matt Costello…he never became the go-to kind of player some thought him capable of being coming out of HS but he has become a very steady and reliable starter for a high level Big Ten team, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Iowa will play a couple of frontcourt guys off their bench. Dom Uhl is a 6’8″ sophomore whom they think can eventually be the kind of multi-faceted forward that guys like Andrew White and Uthoff have been…maybe not at their level, but a similar kind of versatility. He’s made good on that so far this year, averaging 7.3ppg and 4.3 rpg in about 18mpg. He’s also shot extremely well, going 46/48% on the season, though he does much more inside the arc than outside it. Freshman Nicholas Baer is a 6’7″ redshirt freshmen who is a bit of a puzzle for me. He’s averaging 5.7ppg and 3.5 rpg in about 16mpg but those numbers don’t tell you as much as you might think , because it’s been a roller coaster ride for him. Is he really the guy who averaged 12 ppg in 4 games between Dec 19th and Jan 2, or is he the guy who didn’t do a whole lot before that or in their last game against Nebraska? Probably some of both. He strikes me as a try hard guy with some skills…he’s shooting extremely well at 54/50% on the year. It’ll be interesting to see what he does next year when presumably he has to step into a much larger role and will be a focal point for opponents, but for now, he’s definitely extended Iowa’s bench and given them some real punch.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Dribble Containment – Iowa averages a bit under 19 FTA per game this season. That’s not indicative of a team which gets a lot done via penetration. Yet, in the first meeting between these two teams, they lived in the lane (much of it via Gesell) and took 31 free throws, and I don’t think much of that was due to a home court whistle. MSU has shown only one real vulnerability this season IMO and it’s in this area. The good news is that we were seeing very similar things at this time last season and then it changed, as some guys got better (Forbes) and lineup/minutes changes bolstered the overall group. I think MSU has a lot of room to grow here and there would be no better time to start that process than Thursday night. Figuring out how to walk the line between denial of 3s (which MSU has been very good at) and stopping penetration is the #1 thing to watch for going forward as they attempt to tighten things up heading into March.
2. Boards – Iowa is not a great rebounding team but they’re not awful either…they’re mildly positive on the season overall. In the first game, MSU’s 19 offensive boards was one of the only reasons the game was even remotely within reach. Similar offensive board work by the Spartans would be a welcome sight, but these days my focus is usually at the other end. If MSU can deny second chances for Iowa and get into transition, their chances for winning go up.
3. Flow – We saw a rough first half return for Denzel Valentine against Penn State but in the second stanza, we saw things start to fall back into place. MSU’s had several days of practice now after that game, so hopefully the re-adjustment of their best player back into the lineup is even further along. Iowa didn’t see Valentine and just as importantly, they didn’t see everyone else in Green and White playing with Valentine. So, you weigh that against whatever issues may still remain in terms of MSU getting the kinks ironed out.
4. Post Offense – MSU did some good things inside against Iowa in the first game. Costello had 17 points and DD had 6 in very little playing time. The three MSU big men were a collective 9-13 from the floor in that game. I’d like to see those shot attempts up in the 20-25 range this time. Not only does MSU have Zel back for this one but I think Gavin Schilling has also found his legs since that night in Iowa City, so the Hawks have a true three headed post problem to deal with. Iowa’s guys can do some things defensively, but I still think the advantage is with MSU’s big kids if they press it.
5. Energy – I’m expecting Breslin to be on fire. It’s the first game back for the students and with Iowa playing well, ranked, and owning the only victory over MSU thus far, it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a very live atmosphere. Hopefully MSU can ride that and in turn, hopefully it can shake Iowa a bit. Most of the Hawk players have experienced Breslin several times before but I don’t think they’ll have seen it quite like I expect it to be…it’s different when you put a target on your back.
OVERALL – I think MSU is going to win this one, and perhaps win it easily. That’s not a knock on Iowa per se, because they’ve still played very well in conference games so far, but things just set up in MSU’s favor and it’s rare to see this program lose a game like this one at home. Zel and home court will be the biggest differences in the two games and those are two pretty big factors to get flipped around.