There’s a big game coming up this week for Michigan State.
Check that. There’s a huge game coming up this week for Michigan State. That, of course, is on Saturday when No. 4 Michigan State hosts No. 3 Purdue in the second top-five matchup of the season at the Breslin Center.
The Spartans won the first one back in November when it rolled over Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. There’s much more at stake in this one, however, as it’s Michigan State’s best shot at remaining in the Big Ten championship hunt as the season winds down.
But, before any of that can happen, the Spartans need to take care of business on Tuesday night with a trip to Iowa. The 9 p.m. tip will be the latest chance for Michigan State to prove just that.
Taking care of business is essentially what the Spartans have been doing the past couple of weeks. Slow starts against Maryland and Penn State were overcome with outstanding finishes, while the win over Indiana came despite a lackluster effort that had coach Tom Izzo frustrated.
Each of those games resulted in victories, but Michigan State (22-3, 10-2 Big Ten) is looking to turn things up this week before facing Purdue. Against Indiana, the intensity was lacking, and the Spartans expect to put plenty of emphasis on that against the Hawkeyes.
“We didn’t match their energy,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said after the win Saturday over Indiana. “That’s the thing. It can be tough on the road, but we’ve got to match theirs and the crowd’s intensity and energy. That’s how you get out of these games (with a win). We’re a talented team — that’s why we snuck out of this one — but down the road if we don’t match the energy and intensity, it can hurt us.”
Talent alone might be good enough against Iowa (12-13, 3-9), which has had a miserable season. However, two of its three Big Ten victories have come at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That’s one of the best teams in the country,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of the Spartans. “They have multiple pros, they defend, share the ball, and run. They’re big and physical and they’re deep, so we have to get ready.”
Michigan State’s focus likely will be as much on as itself as Iowa. Against Indiana, the Spartans were dominated on the glass, getting outrebounded, 53-29, while giving up 25 offensive rebounds. It was that stat, in particular, that irked Izzo.
“This was a one-person fight and maybe I’m being too hard on my guys,” Izzo said at Indiana. “Maybe these road trips (have been hard), and we’re still young. But we’re gonna find a way to make sure that we win or lose games not be because of the effort we give, the toughness we show or our lack of rebounding. We have to fix that. It hasn’t been a problem all the time but it sure did rear its ugly head tonight.”
The road games can be a convenient excuse, and the schedule has been tough for every team this season as the Big Ten has condensed things in order to fit the conference tournament in a week early.
But this is Michigan State’s toughest stretch. It’s in the middle of three of four on the road and, of the six regular-season games remaining, four are on the road. To get through it and stay on the heels of Purdue, the Spartans will need more from their best players.
Miles Bridges was held to just seven points against Indiana after playing well for the past couple of weeks. Izzo conceded the dog days are here, but he’s looking for more from his star to help push Michigan State down the stretch.
“I don’t know, maybe we are a little tired,” Izzo said. “We’ve had a rough stretch here of games and some close together and on the road a little bit more. We’re going back on the road Tuesday, so I need (Bridges) to be more into it. It wasn’t a lack of motivation, it’s just they did a good job and we did a poor job putting him in position to score.”
Even with a performance that was far from perfect — neither Bridges, Winston or Nick Ward scored in double figures — the Spartans still have won six straight. That, they believe, shows they’re headed in the right direction.
“You’ve got to learn how win games and we’ve been doing a good job of that,” Winston said. “I keep saying last year’s team we wouldn’t have won that game. We’d let a turnover or a bad shot hurt us. We’re making big plays. We didn’t cut out the whole game and let them get on the offensive glass the whole game, but when it came down to a minute left, we got some big rebounds and big stops.”
No. 4 Michigan State at Iowa
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 22-3, 10-2 Big Ten; Iowa 12-13, 3-9
Outlook: Cassius Winston was named one of 10 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The award is given to top point guard in the nation. … The last time Michigan State played at Iowa, the Hawkeyes beat the top-ranked Spartans, 83-70, on Dec. 29, 2015, marking Iowa’s third win over a No. 1-ranked team.