1. A blown opportunity. A Michigan State squad minus two of its best players combined with a feisty sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, gave Iowa the perfect opportunity to elevate the program to an elite level. Yet many of the same cracks continue to surface in this team's foundation, midway through the Big Ten season.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery called out his team for its lack of toughness in a 71-69 overtime loss Tuesday. The No. 15/12 Hawkeyes didn't fight hard enough on scramble plays, they didn't defend properly at the end of possessions, didn't close out an opponent when they had the chance and their free-throw woes continued to bite them. It was similar to previous losses to Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan.
A field-goal drought that lasted for nearly 15 minutes proved fatal. It's difficult enough to beat No. 7/6 Michigan State while playing at a high level. Iowa missed 12 of its final 13 shots from the 9:56 mark of the second half through the end of overtime. Iowa shot 43 free throws — 20 more than Michigan State — but made just 30. That was too much to overcome.
"We were driving the ball, we were throwing it inside and trying to get to the free-throw line," McCaffery said. "We missed 13 free throws; that's unfortunate. We make our free throws and we have a chance to win. But they missed free throws, too. I felt we were moving the ball well, we had some really good looks at it, and just didn't make any."
The game showed subtle differences between Michigan State and Iowa. The Spartans overcame injuries to all-Big Ten-caliber players Branden Dawson (broken hand) and Adreian Payne (sprained foot) plus a wrist injury to Keith Appling and battled Iowa on every possession.
The Hawkeyes scored seven consecutive points to take a 57-51 lead with 5:58 left. Michigan State then scored the next seven points -- a 3-pointer from Appling, a pair of buckets in the paint from Matt Costello. The Spartans tightened up defensively late in the game, allowing just four points in the final 5:58.
"They’re obviously a very good ballclub, very good players," Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. "We just need to make the plays down the stretch. We’ve got to keep our confidence in ourselves and not get tentative or anything like that. We’ve got to continue to attack and just go at them."
Iowa now faces an uphill battle to remain in Big Ten title contention. The Hawkeyes (16-5, 5-3) are three games behind Michigan (15-4, 7-0), which beat Iowa last week at Ann Arbor. Iowa is two games back of Michigan State (18-2, 8-1) and must play the Spartans in East Lansing, where Iowa has lost 17 straight. Overall, the Hawkeyes have lost seven straight to the Spartans — the last three by a combined eight points — and their 20-game home winning streak is over.
"We could have been tied for second and now we’re in third," Iowa senior Devyn Marble said. "Sometimes that happens. You’ve got to
find a way to get back to where you want to be. When you’ve got a team above (you) that’s undefeated; you’re always going to need help. We’ve got to do what we do. We get another shot at Michigan State at Michigan State. It’s going to be another tough game. But we’ve got to concentrate and take it one game at a time."
"We are a confident group of guys," Gesell said. "We’re very competitive. We’ll learn from this game will make us a better team. We feel like we can beat any team in the country on any night."
While it remains a blown opportunity to stay among the top contenders for a Big Ten title, there's still plenty to play for, Marble said.
"If we come up short and don’t get a regular-season title, winning one of the best conference titles in the country — probably the best, probably the hardest one to win — then you get the Big Ten Tournament you get another chance," Marble said. "Is it upsetting? Yes. Is it the end of the world? Absolutely not."
2. Last shots. Iowa had a solid opportunity late in regulation to beat Michigan State outright. Spartans guard Gary Harris missed a 3-pointer, and Iowa's Melsahn Basabe rebounded with 25 seconds left. Marble milked the clock near mid-court until seven seconds remained. Marble drove past Harris and tossed up a runner with four seconds left. The ball was pushed a little hard and caromed to Basabe, who tipped the ball up toward the basket, but missed. Michigan State's Travis Trice secured the rebound with 1.8 seconds left and the game went into overtime.
"I thought it was good," Marble said of his shot. "I thought it was good. I just told everybody to get out of the way. I didn’t want (any) screens, none of that. I knew Harris was going to shoot that gap, and I crossed over; I knew that from the film. That’s why I (spun) back. I got the shot I wanted. I thought it was good. Then Mel got the tip, and I thought that was about to go in. They kind of blocked that one, so it was tough to get that one.
"I guess we were in position to win. We got two good looks at it, and they just didn’t go in."
On Basabe's putback, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine stuck his right hand up and grabbed the net as the ball hit the rim. It was a scramble situation and basket interference wasn't called. Marble initially thought the ball was deflected by Michigan State center Matt Costello.
"They kind of blocked it. (Basabe) didn’t just miss it," Marble said. "He was trying to tip it in. Costello or somebody. (Basabe) was trying to tip it in. He didn’t have enough time to gather, I don’t think. Try to tip it in; you can be a little more physical on that kind of a play. Maybe he kind of bumped into it, I don’t know. It’s a loose ball, so there’s not going to be a foul called in there. So it was a good defensive play by whoever did it, and sent it to overtime."
Iowa had one final chance to tie or win the game in overtime. After Appling missed a pair of free throws, Iowa secured the ball under its basket trailing by two and called timeout with 4.4 seconds left. Iowa's Josh Oglesby inbounded the ball with Mike Gesell to his left and Marble to his right. Marble was double covered by Russell Byrd and Harris. Only Appling defended Gesell, who received the ball.
Gesell reached mid-court with 2.6 seconds left. Neither Aaron White nor Anthony Clemmons was open past mid-court. Gesell drove hard at the basket and released an off-balanced shot just to the right of the paint with Appling applying tough defense. The ball bounced off the backboard, and Iowa lost 71-69.
"Once (Appling) missed the second free throw, we'll take it to double overtime and we'll shoot the 3 if it's there," McCaffery said of the huddle conversation. "I think once (Gesell) had a head of steam, he was going. I think it would have been a hard pull-up 3 with 4.4 (seconds), you essentially have four dribbles and a shot.
"The problem then becomes the best 3 to make there is probably off the pass. If he dribbles twice and passes, does the horn go off? You know, you don't want that to happen. You want to get a shot. I was OK either way. I think a pull-up 3 in that situation is a tough shot to make."
Iowa did have one timeout remaining in that situation. It's possible Iowa could have called for time once getting past mid-court with around 2 seconds left.
"I knew we had one timeout left, but I felt like I could get to the bucket," Gesell said. "I was watching the clock the whole time, and I felt like we needed to get a shot. In that situation you have to get at least a shot up. That’s a shot I know I’m capable of making. I just wasn’t able to make it."
3. Officiating. Nobody in the wide world of college basketball is happy with the officiating. That's universal. The new emphasis on limiting contact on the perimeter has driven Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo batty.
Michigan State was whistled for 29 fouls, leading to 43 Iowa free throws. Iowa was called for 19, which gave MSU 20 free-throw attempts. Izzo was asked about the officiating and rules interpretations afterward and tried to bite his tongue. But, of course, he couldn't.
"You baiting me into a $10,000 fine or you want me to answer?" Izzo asked. "I've said all year, we went too far to the left or to the right. I'm definitely not a politician, but I'm definitely not in favor of it as you can tell. We went way too far. I said that from day one.
"I feel sorry for all four parties. I feel sorry for fans. I feel sorry for the players. I feel sorry for the coaches, and to me we put them in such a bad position, only a little bit, but I feel a little bit sorry for the officials because of these mandates. But coaches can't change this. We have no say. But maybe the media can?"
Michigan State was dinged repeatedly for subjective fouls, ones that last year might have gone unnoticed. Michigan State had five players with four fouls and committed 18 in the second half or overtime.
The Spartans also were aided by a pair of no-calls. Basket interference wasn't called on the final play of regulation, and Appling had a three-step sprint from outside the 3-point line to a layup early in the second half. The lack of that whistle led to a McCaffery technical foul with 17:52 left
These days nobody likes the officiating. Everyone used to think officials needed glasses. Now, the consensus is officials need to be investigated. No wonder the officiating isn't better. The loosely defined rules interpretation didn't help officials, coupled with the constant scrutiny makes officiating the worst job in America.