IOWA CITY — You wade through a lot during a college basketball season, the acronym schools and directional schools, the Savannah-this and Bryant-that, the mediocrities even a conference of the Big Ten’s caliber includes.
But Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena will have the game you crave. The 21st-ranked Iowa men’s team, riding a five-game winning streak that has changed the way many view it, gets its chance to be regarded as something even more than quite improved.
The 16-3 Hawkeyes face 17-2 Michigan State, owners of a No. 5 ranking and a rather incredible 20-game regular-season stretch of victories in Big Ten play.
“Everybody wants to beat them,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday. “They’re going to get your best when you play them. They seem to be able to fight it off.”
What makes the Spartans the Spartans? A get-up-and-go transition offense that will take any vulnerability you have and exploit it, their usual will and ability to out-rebound you, and, of course, their usual sprinkling of future NBA players.
Last year, MSU’s Jaren Jackson Jr., was the fourth player taken in the NBA draft and Miles Bridges went at No. 10. Yet, “slippage” is as foreign a concept to the Spartans as missing the NCAA Tournament, which they haven’t done since 1997.
“They get complete buy-in on whoever they have,” McCaffery said. Nobody really recruited (Kenny) Goins. Seems like he gets 15 rebounds every night. So they understand what they can do, and they actually get it to perfection. There is no slippage, no excuses, and you either do it or you don’t play.”
Cassius Winston plays. The junior point guard is a National Player of the Year candidate. He had 12 assists in MSU’s 90-68 win over the Hawkeyes last Dec. 3 in East Lansing. He has a league-high 7.3 assists per game, averages 18 points, and has made 44 percent of his 3-pointers in Big Ten play.
Winston goes and goes. His team goes and goes. In league games, MSU is first in scoring margin with an almost-absurd plus-15.1 points per game. It’s also first in field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, rebounding margin, blocked shots, assist-to-turnovers ratio, and the number of times they’ve looked into opponents’ eyes and seen frustration.
But the Hawkeyes are riding rather high themselves. They are outscoring opponents by 12 points per game during their five-game stretch of triumphs.
A win over the Spartans, Hawkeye forward Tyler Cook said, would “be huge. That’s a credit to Michigan State, how consistent they’ve been, how good a team they are.
“We’ve just got to make sure we keep our emotions in check, make sure that we’re sticking to the game plan, but at the same time play with an edge, a chip on our shoulder from what happened up there.
“We’re excited for it.”
They should be. This is an opportunity to be somebody.
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