Hawkeyes look to pop Spartans’ bubble

BY IAN MARTIN | MARCH 10, 2011 7:20 AM

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Fran McCaffery has accomplished much in his first season as the Iowa men’s basketball team’s new leader. He’s improved on the win total from last season, beaten a top-10 squad, and has sent ticket sales on an upwards trend.

Today’s game against Michigan State at Conseco Field House presents one more opportunity to accomplish something that his predecessor couldn’t: win a game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Former coach Todd Lickliter was 0-3 in the conference’s postseason, falling to Michigan in all of those games. Now the 10th-seeded McCaffery and Company must face the other team from the Great Lake State.

The Spartans (17-13, 9-9) are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and the Big Ten’s seven seed. They can’t afford another loss to the Hawkeyes (11-19, 4-14), who embarrassed Sparty in Iowa City by 20 on Feb. 2. Michigan State did, however, easily handle Iowa at home just a week ago, winning by 19.

Michigan State has something bigger at stake, though. Currently projected as one of the “last four teams in” the NCAA Tournament by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi, most pundits say the Spartans need to beat Iowa and get a win in the next round to have a secure spot in the field of 68.

For Iowa, there is nothing on the line.

And that’s why McCaffery is taking scouting one game at a time. Because you can’t scout Purdue — the opponent awaiting the winner of the Iowa-Michigan State tilt — if you don’t beat the Spartans.

“You’ve got to win one. That’s it,” he said. “So all we’re worried about right now is Michigan State. That’s it. Then we’ll go from there.”

Players are also focused on playing well particularly because the team played well in its last game — when Iowa shocked then-No. 6 Purdue, 67-65.

“We played well against Michigan State a month ago, then we went out and didn’t play very well the next week or so,” junior guard Matt Gatens said. “We just have to be consistent.”

Perhaps the only person on the team who is looking at the bigger picture is senior Jarryd Cole, who is always potentially playing his final game. But Cole couldn’t help himself when talking about winning the Big Ten Tournament, because he’s never been able to play in the Big Dance.

“Best-case scenario, we win four games in four days and get a bid in the NCAAs,” he said. “That’s definitely a motivation of mine. I haven’t been there before.”

While a 10-seed is never expected to win a tournament, there is a history of them succeeding in the Big Ten Tournament. In the contest’s 13 years of existence, 10 seeds actually hold a 7-6 record in first round games. Illinois even made an unforgettable run to the championship game as the second-to-last team in the conference in 2008.

Combine this with Iowa’s 13-11 overall record in the tournament, including two championships, and a run cannot be completely written off.

However, this Iowa team isn’t going to sneak up on anyone. The Purdue upset combined with other close calls this season means teams aren’t going to take the Hawkeyes lightly. Gatens, though, seemed OK with this.

“It’s probably better than being a team people want to play,” he joked.

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