CHICAGO — They’ve been knocked down and punked out. They’ve slammed chairs and had turnovers slammed.
Iowa’s recent history with Michigan State is full of heartbreak and backdowns. Five consecutive losses, including two straight in Big Ten Tournament play. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery infamously slammed a chair last year in East Lansing and his players infamously collapsed this year in Iowa City.
Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal between Iowa (21-11) and Michigan State (24-7) is personal for Iowa’s players. It’s personal for junior Devyn Marble, who’s tired of losing to former high school rival Keith Appling. It’s personal for freshman Anthony Clemmons, who grew up in Lansing and is best friends with Spartans freshman and former high school teammate Denzel Valentine. It’s personal for all of them, especially Friday, with Iowa’s NCAA tournament hopes on the line against their bad-ass Big Ten nemesis.
“I’m tired of losing to them, just from the standpoint they keep knocking us out of the Big Ten Tournament, beating us in regular-season games,” Marble said. “When you go home, you’ve got to hear that. I’m tired of hearing that. I’m tired of losing in the Big Ten Tournament and not be able to advance because of this team.”
The roots in this recent series began with McCaffery’s first game against the Spartans. Iowa drubbed Michigan State in a snowstorm by 20 points, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called out his team in embarrassment. The Spartans later got revenge at home 85-66 on Senior Night and then 66-61 in a Big Ten Tournament first-round game to close out Iowa’s season.
Last year in East Lansing, Iowa failed to respond with any measure of toughness in a 95-61 drubbing. The Hawkeyes trailed by as many as 43 points in the second half and their lack of response led to McCaffery slamming a chair in the middle of a huddle during a timeout. The incident went viral, and led to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany discussing the event publicly.
The teams met again in a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal. The Spartans, which tied for the league regular-season crown, pounded Iowa 92-75 en route to the league tourney title. Again, Michigan State was the tougher team.
But the loss that stings the most for Iowa — perhaps because it’s the most recent — was in Iowa City on Jan. 10. Iowa led 26-14 with less than eight minutes left in the first half, then scored on one of its last 13 first-half possessions to lead by only four at halftime.
Iowa led 56-53 with 1:04 left when Michigan State freshman Gary Harris was fouled by Aaron White while shooting a 3-pointer. Harris knocked down all three shots. On Iowa’s next possession, Michigan State’s Branden Dawson intercepted an errant Mike Gesell pass at mid-court and streaked for the game-leading dunk. Iowa missed four of its final eight free throws to lose 62-59, its final defeat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this year.
Iowa committed 18 turnovers that night, including four each by point guards Gesell and Clemmons.
“Didn’t play with any toughness,” McCaffery said after the game. “No, did not. And that’s disappointing. Offensively we played with no toughness whatsoever. Defensively, we did. On the glass, we did. But you have the other end of the floor, OK? Can’t turn the ball over 18 times. They don’t change defenses. They don’t press. You can’t turn the ball over 18 times, because when you do, it’s dunks and lay-ups. Here we are working hard to stop them and giving them layups off turnovers. Can’t do it.”
Iowa’s Melsahn Basabe, a junior, said of the five straight losses to Michigan State, that home loss hurt the most.
“I feel like that one even more, because it wasn’t like we didn’t have the lead,” Basabe said. “We had the lead and blew it. Forget being tied like the other times, we had the lead and blew it. You can’t take any credit away from them, they won the game. They wanted it more than we did. They did that much more to win the game.”
More than anything in those five games, Michigan State was tougher than Iowa. Tougher mentally, tougher physically. It was apparent in the 2012 whipping in East Lansing when Iowa was battered on the boards and didn’t respond. Iowa players were drilled in the paint, and fouls weren’t called. They didn’t attack Michigan State, and the Spartans made them pay. Iowa players, like Basabe, understand that now.
“There are things that they do well and you have to respect that because they can kill you,” Basabe said. “If you want to stay and ball watch, you’ll get beat by 30. Adreian Payne those guys … tip dunking on your head, hitting 3s and they’ll run you out of the gym. Then if you want to be soft, they’ll push you out of the half-court to run your offense and you look up and you’re down 35 and say how did this happen?”
Then there’s the mental side, like in this year’s loss. With Iowa players missing free throws and committing turnovers in the clutch, the Spartans clawed back. While the Hawkeyes missed four free throws in the final two minutes, the Spartans knocked down all seven attempts. While Iowa played loose offensively in the second half with 10 turnovers, the Spartans cut their miscues to five. While Michigan State scored 24 points off Iowa turnovers, the Hawkeyes retaliated with only 10.
Marble sat out that game with a sprained ankle. Friday, he’ll likely draw several possessions against Appling. The two competed against one another in the Detroit area in the local gyms and in high school with Marble playing at Southfield Lathrup and Appling at Detroit Pershing. Appling’s teams, which included current Michigan State teammate Derrick Nix, won state championships. Marble’s teams did not.
“We’ve been playing each other since high school and stuff like that, and we always end up guarding each other,” Marble said. “You play each other so much. It’s personal but not consciously. He’s a competitive guy, I respect him a lot, and when you’re competitive with someone, when you play against each other, that competitive nature coming out in both of us and ends up usually making a good game.”
To compete Friday, Iowa must battle the Spartans on the boards. Michigan State held a 36-35 advantage in January. Iowa must take advantage of any opening on offense and knock down free throws because the Hawkeyes are going to get hit in the lane.
But Iowa’s players are confident. They nearly pulled the upset in January and believe they can compete. Plus, with a potential NCAA tournament berth at stake, they’re motivated.
“Obviously I respect Michigan State, I respect coach Izzo, I respect their players,” Basabe said. “I know them well. I’ve known them for three years. I’m not going to underestimate the eighth-ranked team in the country. But as funny as it sounds, we’ve got a team that can compete with any top-10 team or top-5 team. I think (Friday) is about just going out and attacking and playing hard. Don’t think about the outcome of winning or losing or how many shots. Just play hard.”
“We’ve got an unbelievable challenge,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Everybody knows that. And that is, in some respects, almost the gold standard for what teams want to become. Tom (Izzo) is one of the premier coaches in our game, without question. So we know what’s in front of us, but we welcome the opportunity.”
“It’s a challenge,” Marble said, “and I think we’re going to accept the challenge and step forward.”
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