Iowa solidifies its status as Big Ten heavyweight with road rout of MSU
No. 16 Iowa made history on Thursday night, defeating No. 4 Michigan State 76–59 for its first win in East Lansing since 1993 and its first regular-season sweep of the Spartans since that same year. The Hawkeyes had previously beaten MSU by 13 at home two and a half weeks ago, albeit with Spartans star Denzel Valentine sidelined. Valentine was back on Thursday, but it wasn’t enough to stop Iowa, which appears to have Michigan State’s number this season.
Here are three thoughts on the Hawkeyes’ big win:
Denzel Valentine can’t solve everything
Michigan State’s loss at Iowa on Dec. 29 was generally considered acceptable, if not an anomaly, for two reasons. It was a road game and, more importantly, Valentine was out after having minor knee surgery. Then No. 1 MSU dropped four spots in the AP poll afterward, though head coach Tom Izzo has since warned that no one should think the Spartans lost because of Valentine’s absence; rather, it was Iowa’s impressive play that got the job done.
With Valentine’s return, however, Thursday’s game in East Lansing was expected to be a barn burner, a matchup of two top-20 teams that had outplayed preseason expectations so far. It turned out to be an early blowout in favor of the visitors, and perhaps Izzo’s words were prescient since having Valentine on the court wasn’t enough for the Spartans to have a better showing this time around against the Hawkeyes.
The senior opened the game by swishing a three, but he went scoreless over the next 13 minutes as Iowa built up a lead. He finished with 14 points (5-of-12 shooting), five assists and four rebounds. It should be noted that Valentine was making his first start since returning after the surgery; he came off the bench to score 10 points in last Sunday’s win over Penn State.
Senior forward Matt Costello led Michigan State with 15 points and nine rebounds, but he and Valentine didn’t get much offensive help. Eron Harris had the highlight of the night with this baseline dunk, but he finished with only seven points on 2-of-9 shooting, failing to reach double figures for the first time since Dec. 19. Senior guard Bryn Forbes, who averages 14.4 points, got into foul trouble early and played just 10 minutes, finishing with two points and three rebounds. In Michigan State’s two losses this season, Forbes has scored a total of five points, which shows how important he is to its offense.
Despite another loss to Iowa, there’s no reason for the Spartans to panic right now. They still have only two losses on the season and have wins over Kansas, Providence, Louisville and Florida. They had to adjust when Valentine was sidelined and they are likely adjusting again now that he’s back. What Michigan State needs to do now is reset and get ready to play at Wisconsin on Sunday, because the Hawkeyes have provided a blueprint to beating MSU that the rest of the conference will surely be studying.
Jarrod Uthoff is Iowa’s star, but there’s plenty of firepower around him
Uthoff entered Thursday leading the Big Ten in scoring at 18.6 per game, but he had a tough shooting night at the Breslin Center, going 5 for 17 for 15 points. That’s after Uthoff scored “only” 10 points in Iowa’s first win over Michigan State a couple weeks ago. But just as they did then, other players stepped up on Thursday.
The leader in the win in Iowa City was senior point guard Mike Gesell, but this time Gesell picked up two fouls within the first two and a half minutes and was forced to sit the rest of the half. It was no matter for Iowa; with their floor general out an extended period, the Hawkeyes outscored the Spartans by 24 points over the rest of the half to build a 47–25 lead. Much of that was thanks to hot three-point shooting (Iowa made seven of its first nine attempts) and the play of junior guard Peter Jok, who poured in 19 first-half points. Jok finished with 23 points, while senior guard Anthony Clemmons added 13 and sophomore forward Dom Uhl played a key role off the bench, scoring 10 and going 2 of 2 from three.
Defensively, the Hawkeyes were able to disrupt Michigan State, which frequently looked like it was out of rhythm as it committed 14 first-half turnovers, something Iowa took full advantage of. The Spartans looked more fluid in the second half and took much better care of the ball, but the hole was ultimately too deep for them to climb out of and they never got within single digits.
Iowa is a legitimate Big Ten contender, if not the favorite
The Big Ten had a number of seemingly clear-cut “top-half teams” at the beginning of the season, including Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and even Wisconsin, which started the year ranked No. 17. All of those teams were ranked in the preseason AP poll, but Iowa wasn’t. In fact, the Hawkeyes were predicted to finish ninth in SI.com’s statistical projection of the Big Ten race.
All of that is now in the rearview mirror. By moving to 4–0 in conference play with the win over MSU, Iowa stands atop the conference along with Indiana. The Hawkeyes’ wins, however, are far more impressive. They managed to get through a brutal start to conference play unscathed, with two wins over Michigan State (home and away), a road win over then-No. 14 Purdue and a home win against Nebraska. And these aren’t last-second, just-pulled-it-out wins either. Iowa has won those four games by a combined 48 points.
The Hawkeyes still have a rematch at home with Purdue and a road game at Maryland on their January slate, but beyond that their schedule lets up considerably compared to how it started. Big Ten games are never easy—especially away from home—but after recent results the conference is looking far more wide open than it was just a couple weeks ago. There’s a long way to go, but right now Iowa unquestionably has to be in the conversation when one discusses the Big Ten’s top challengers. The Hawkeyes have played themselves into the national conversation as well, and with five top-10 teams already going down this week it will be interesting to see how the rankings shake out on Monday.