IOWA CITY — Physical play defines the Iowa-Michigan State rivalry in two sports, but it reached controversial levels in a men’s basketball game last March.
In the moments that followed Michigan State’s tenacious 59-56 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win against Iowa, point guards from both teams described the game as one of the most physical in which they had played. In a postgame news conference, Michigan State forward Adreian Payne proudly admitted was busted in the lip four times.
But the game’s officiating did not reflect its brutal nature. In the second half, officials whistled the teams for just 13 fouls. Strangely, many of the called fouls were equally as perplexing, especially within the game’s final three minutes. Rick Boyages, the Big Ten’s supervisor of officials, reviewed the game thoroughly and admits there were mistakes.
“I spent a lot of time examining the last 11 minutes when the lead disappeared,” Boyages said. “We felt like from about 11 minutes to probably three, there really wasn’t anything overly controversial that involved officiating. Then we had some calls, some no calls in the last three minutes.
“Is the last three minutes of the game more important than any of the others? You’ve got to believe that it is. So inaccuracies in the last three minutes have to be dealt with differently than prior. Yeah, it may be a missed call or not, but there’s an expectation in the last three or four minutes of the game. It’s just there’s more on the line.”
There was much at stake for Iowa in that game. A weak non-conference schedule coupled with a 9-9 Big Ten record put the Hawkeyes on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Hawkeyes were known for wilting in several games that season. They had blown a 19-point lead at Nebraska, crumbled in the final seconds at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue plus surrendered a 12-point advantage against the Spartans in a four-point home loss.
Against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa was aggressive and frustrated the Spartans at multiple junctures. The Hawkeyes built a 13-point advantage early in the second half. It was no surprise that powerhouse Michigan State chipped at Iowa’s lead as the half progressed. The Spartans’ defensive intensity paralyzed Iowa’s offense, allowing just one basket over an 8-minute, 36-second period. Michigan State hit 9 of 13 shots, forced five Iowa turnovers and outscored Iowa 22-2 over that time frame to take an eight-point lead with 1:48 left.
As the game’s physical play intensified, the officiating became more scrutinized. Four different possessions helped shape the outcome and became magnified based on the game’s importance to Iowa.
Michigan State led 52-49 with 2:21 left in the game. Michigan State center Derrick Nix turned right, then spun left around Iowa’s Zach McCabe. Nix took three steps, crashed into a moving McCabe and pushed the ball off the glass for a basket. McCabe was whistled for the foul by veteran official Ted Valentine as an incensed Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery sought a traveling call. Nix sank the ensuing free throw, and the Spartans led by six.
On Iowa’s next possession, Iowa’s Josh Oglesby missed a 3-point attempt. While raising his right arm, Payne wrapped his left arm around McCabe’s neck to prevent the Iowa forward from grabbing the rebound. Payne dragged McCabe from under the basket to almost half court. There was no call.
The play symbolized the physical nature on both sides. Throughout the first half, Michigan State’s players were repeatedly bumped, as was Iowa guard Mike Gesell. Nearly five minutes into second half, Hawkeyes guard Devyn Marble pump-faked a 3-pointer and received a left elbow to his face from Nix. Marble promptly released the ball, which rolled backward. Iowa lost possession for a shot-clock violation and officially it was recorded as a blocked shot.
“The Michigan State Big Ten Tournament game, I feel like I was playing
football,” Marble said before this season. “It was almost like it wasn’t basketball. I still remember the time I pump-faked and Nix clobbered me. I was like, we’re still playing basketball. We’re not trying to hurt each other. It just gets to the point where it’s so physical.”
Iowa chopped its deficit from eight points to 57-56 with 1:02 left. Michigan State worked the shot clock down to three seconds on its next possession. Gary Harris rose up for a jumper just inside the 3-point line, and Iowa forward Aaron White deflected the ball, which was directed to Iowa teammate Melsahn Basabe. Official Jim Schipper whistled White for the foul, and Harris knocked down two free throws.
Then on Iowa’s final possession, Michigan State point guard Keith Appling hit Marble’s arm as the Iowa guard attempted an off-balanced 3-pointer with three seconds. The ball caromed to Payne, who dribbled out the clock for the Spartans’ win. There was no call.
In the aftermath, McCaffery said his team “deserved a better fate” but declined to elaborate why. CBS basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb said Iowa “got Teddy V’d” the next day, referring to Valentine’s style of officiating. Two days later, Iowa was one of final six teams discussed but ultimately excluded from the NCAA tournament.
Appling called the battle “one of the most physical games I ever played in.” Last fall at Big Ten media day, Appling said he had no problem with the way it was officiated.
“I feel like that’s how the Big Ten is supposed to be,” he said. “It’s a physical conference. There shouldn’t be a lot of fouls called.”
Neither Valentine nor Schipper has worked an Iowa game this year. Tuesday, No. 3 Michigan State and No. 10 Iowa tangle at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with second place at stake. The style of play expects to be the same as last March.
“It’s going to be a physical game, I understand that,” Marble said. “I’ve been playing against them for four years. A lot of those guys I’ve been playing against since even before we got to college. It’s going to be a war.”
Hopefully this time without the controversy.