IOWA CITY — Iowa finished February with four losses in seven games. Michigan State has lost five of its last eight games.
The teams remain ranked — barely — but the long season has worn them down perhaps under the weight of high expectations and a few injuries along the way. No. 25 Iowa (20-9, 9-7 Big Ten) lost three games in a five-day period before topping Purdue on Sunday. The No. 22 Spartans (22-7, 11-5) failed to crack 50 points at home against then-last place Illinois last Saturday.
Both Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery and Michigan State counterpart Tom Izzo have differing approaches to moving their programs in right direction. But they’re not dissimilar, either.
“I think we’re both looking for the same thing,” Izzo said. “We both coach with emotion on our sleeves and hopefully your team takes on that personality. Sometimes your personnel doesn’t quite get there.
“I think we’re both heading down the right track, and that’s why it should be a good game.”
Many teams deal with fatigue and energy lapses before tournament time, and the college basketball season has become even more of a grind recently. In 2012, the NCAA allowed coaches to work individuals eight hours a week during the summer. Last year, the practice start date was moved up to Sept. 27 but the number of preseason practices remained the same. Both teams played in exempt tournaments away from home and both approach their 30th game. When you add in the constant travel plus academic work, the players’ focus and energy starts to wane.
“That last week where we lost three in a row was the culmination of it all, traveling and the schedule didn’t go in our favor and everything going against us,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “But you can’t let that bother you, and you’ve got to get right back at it.”
Both coaches are experimenting with their practice schedules to find the right formula. McCaffery has tapered off the physical side of practice. He chooses to practice for less time to limit fatigue.
“So that’s less they are here and that’s more time that they can be studying,” McCaffery said, “and it’s more time that they can be resting, and it’s more time they can be with a trainer if they are banged up.”
Izzo has doubled down. Michigan State is on spring break this week, and the Spartans will practice twice a day. Only two Michigan State players have started every Big Ten game — sophomores Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. All-Big Ten-caliber players Adreian Payne (six), Branden Dawson (eight) and Keith Appling (three) have missed league games with injuries. All three are back, but they’ve not played effectively together. Building cohesiveness is vital for Izzo, and the clock is ticking.
“I think this is a veteran enough team to understand what we’ve gone through, and yet we’ve got to get it back,” Izzo said. “We’ve got to put the pedal to the metal a little bit and getting it back a little quicker than you normally have to do when you have these kind of injuries.”
As for Iowa, health is not the issue. White said keeping everything fresh from practices to treatments is the key.
“This is the fun part of the season,” White said. “Postseason play right around the corner. Senior night on Saturday.“You can’t come here and, ‘Oh, another day at practice. It’s the same thing we did last week.’ We’re lucky to be here. A lot of people would kill to be in our position even though we’ve lost three of our last four.”