Men’s hoops travels to face Spartans

BY SETH ROBERTS | MARCH 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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Exactly one month ago, the Iowa men’s basketball team thrashed then-No. 25 Michigan State by 20 points in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery called the blowout victory his team’s most complete game of the season. Center Jarryd Cole said the game was “fun” as he sported an ear-to-ear grin in his postgame interviews. Even stoic shooting guard Matt Gatens cracked a small smile after recording the 1,000th point of his Hawkeye career in the game.

Spartan head coach Tom Izzo wasn’t so happy. He seethed during his press conference, thrashing his feet under a table and throwing out such terms as “total letdown” and “lack of effort.”

He even called the 72-52 Hawkeye win “the worst performance of any team I’ve coached since I’ve been at Michigan State.”

Plenty has changed in the 28 days since the last matchup between the teams, though. Iowa (10-18, 3-13) has won one game since its Feb. 2 upset of the Spartans (16-12, 8-8), who have won three of their last five to revive their chances of earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

With just two games left in the regular season, Iowa’s best-case scenario for next week’s Big Ten Tournament is a No. 10 seed. Michigan State, on the other hand, is in position to claim a first-round bye if it beats Iowa and Michigan. Those two wins, combined with a strong showing in the conference tourney, would likely allow the Spartans to go dancing just weeks after they appeared to have popped their own bubble.

It comes down to the Hawkeyes to play spoiler — and they’ve proven they know how to beat Sparty.

The Black and Gold raced out to a 30-8 first-half lead on Feb. 2, forcing 17 Spartan turnovers and collecting 30 points from the giveaways. Iowa blitzed early and often and turned its airtight defense into frenetic transition offense.

“Michigan State is a transition basketball team, and it’s good to give a team like that some of its own medicine,” Cole said after racking up 13 points and nine rebounds in the blowout. “Teams that like to run don’t like to get run on, and we knew that. We’ve been working in practice [on] quick-upping the ball — get it in, get it out, and go.”

Whether that game plan works this time around is yet to be determined. Izzo’s squad has turned its play up a notch, beating good Illinois and Minnesota teams and manhandling Penn State. Its three losses since Feb. 2 have all come against ranked opponents: then-No. 19 Wisconsin, then-No. 2 Ohio State, and then-No. 8 Purdue.

Still, another Iowa upset isn’t out of the question. Izzo called on his team to “man up” after the Feb. 2 game, and it appears to have responded well, but he also admitted Sparty has been on uncharacteristically shaky ground this year.

“We’ve put a lot of hurts on a lot of people,” Izzo said on Feb. 2. “We have to see if we can handle when people are coming at us, because they know we’re a little vulnerable right now.”

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