IOWA CITY — Iowa’s basketball program stands at the national platform wearing a figurative cap and gown and needs only to turn its tassel to complete its turnaround.
ESPN will be there, as will a full house watching. So, too, will be their contemporaries, wondering if Iowa has what it takes to stay on the big stage. But Iowa must do more than smile and toss its hat in the air. The Hawkeyes need to grab their diploma by figuratively punching out its holder.
Standing between No. 15/12 Iowa (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) is No. 7/6 Michigan State (18-2, 7-1), the Big Ten’s flagship basketball program. It’s the same team that’s beaten Iowa six straight. It’s the same program that sent Iowa home from three consecutive Big Ten Tournaments. It’s the same school that dealt Iowa its most excruciating loss under Fran McCaffery in last year’s Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa’s players re-watched that 59-56 defeat last spring that kept them from an NCAA tournament berth. They crumbled under the weight of turnovers — and a few controversial calls — and allowed a 13-point lead to disintegrate. It still makes the team uncomfortable, nearly a year later.
“That was tough to watch again, even though it was last year,” Iowa senior Zach McCabe said. “It showed how many mistakes we made and how close we were to winning the game. We were up the whole game until pretty much the last five minutes. That motivates us and gets us ready for this game. We don’t want to taste that loss like we did last year.”
“It’s a different kind of upset,” Iowa senior Devyn Marble said. “You can look back and reflect without any anger. It wasn’t like it was that night it happened. From that standpoint it was upsetting, but it was something we could actually learn from.”
Those lessons may prove vital Tuesday. This Iowa team is deeper, more experienced and more confident than last year’s version. The Hawkeyes are a contender for a Big Ten title, not merely hoping for an NCAA berth. They lead the Big Ten in scoring and field-goal defense. They rank second nationally in scoring margin and routinely throw 10 players into valuable action.
But statistics won’t impress the Spartans. Michigan State ranked No. 1 nationally earlier this season and has national title aspirations. Its best scorer is guard Gary Harris and injured forward Adreian Payne. Both are probable NBA first-round draft picks. Coach Tom Izzo, the dean of Big Ten coaches, has taken six teams to the Final Four and won seven league titles.
“From a consistency standpoint, they’re a program that I think every coach in this league understands if you’re going to win a championship, you’ve got to go through Michigan State,” McCaffery said. “Plain and simple.”
Michigan State is hobbled entering this game. Branden Dawson — the team’s leading rebounder — is out with a broken hand. Payne likely will sit with a sprained foot. But Michigan State prides itself on toughness and never offers excuses. With its recent history of anguish against the Spartans, don’t expect Iowa to pity their opponent for their woes, either.
“Absolutely not,” Marble said. “I was injured last year. They didn’t take any (mercy). and I don’t think they slowed down on Mike (Gesell) and them. There definitely won’t be any remorse this way. They don’t want it. Izzo is not a coach that going to tell you we lost the game because this guy didn’t play or that guy didn’t play.”
Iowa has won 20 consecutive home games, one shy of tying a Carver-Hawkeye Arena record. Its last home loss? Yep, Michigan State last January. Iowa led by 12 points in the first half only to crumble in the final minute of a 62-59 game.
Claiming that basketball diploma sounds so simple for Iowa. A win washes out the distaste from the Big Ten Tournament loss, last year’s home collapse and McCaffery’s chair slamming in East Lansing two years ago. A win validates Iowa as a national contender and a ties an arena record for excellence. Maybe most important, a win is the difference between confidence and doubt. The only way to earn respect from Michigan State is to take it. That starts with toughness, both physical and mental.
“The Big Ten kind of goes through Michigan State, and they’ve earned that respect,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “We’ve been close — since I’ve gotten here — to beating them. It’s time to make a statement and get a big win at home.”