Already in this young college basketball season, the Spartans face a trio of important conference games. Michigan State’s upcoming matchups against three unranked foes (Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State) are made significant by the competitiveness of the Big Ten this season: six teams from the conference are in the top 25. The next three games are a major opportunity for the Spartans to stockpile victories before they run into the heart of their schedule.
With an overall record of 12-3, 1-1 in the Big Ten, the Spartans are currently in solid standing. But if the team wants to make a deep playoff run, it needs to quickly hit its stride. Following MSU’s upcoming three game stretch against unranked opponents, Michigan State will delve into a brutal part of the schedule, facing off with #15 Ohio State, Wisconsin, #5 Indiana, #12 Illinois, #8 Minnesota, Purdue and finally #2 Michigan.
Thursday’s matchup against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is only the first step in the journey. Immediately the Spartans will be challenged, as the Hawkeyes are a dangerous team. Following November losses to Wichita State and Virginia Tech, Iowa rolled to six consecutive non-conference wins. The Hoosiers ended the lengthy winning streak, but the Hawkeyes gave fifth ranked Indiana a scare, as the visitors barely escaped Iowa City with a 69-65 win.
Despite the importance of the match with this tough Iowa team, MSU head coach Tom Izzo is not willing to categorize the game as a must-win. “Well I hate to say it and it’s not coach speak, but I don’t know if Iowa’s one of those games,” Izzo stated. “We didn’t win there two years ago and it’s not an easy place to play at. But I do think they’re much improved.”
The improved Hawkeyes do have weaknesses, though. A 16-0 Michigan team exposed Iowa’s vulnerability in the second half of a 95-67 rout, wearing down the Hawkeyes on defense. “What was upsetting to me was our defensive intensity and our level of concentration,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery told the Quad-City Times. After putting up a valiant effort that kept the contest close in the first half, Iowa fell apart in the latter half of the game. “I did not think they played very well [in the] second half,” Izzo said. “I thought Michigan played really well [in the] second half. But in the first I think it was a two or three point game with a couple minutes to go…and it got out of hand. It probably didn’t help that he [Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery] benched his whole starters a couple times and wasn’t real happy with them, which is why I love the guy.”
Despite Iowa’s poor second half showing, Izzo does not think that the game against Michigan is a good example of how the Hawkeyes play. “I think Iowa is worthy of their 9-1 record at home,” Izzo said. “I do think how they played against Indiana is how they play.” Izzo expects McCaffery’s team to put up a good fight on its home court. The Spartans will have to be prepared to battle for a win over Iowa, and more importantly, a coveted Big Ten road victory. “You definitely have to find some road games to win. If you look at anybody’s schedule there are certain games,” Izzo explained. “When you have six ranked teams in the league …You hope to win some of those road games if you play them.”
Michigan State’s veteran coach recognizes that regardless of rank or record, each game on MSU’s schedule will be a challenge. “Every stretch is an important stretch for us right now. There’s no question that trying to beat teams that aren’t ranked is a little better than trying to beat the teams that are in the top five. So, if you look at it that way. For me, I don’t look at it that way,” Izzo said. “I just think right now every game we play, home or away, is not going to be an easy task. I really believe that for us. And part of that is them, but part of that is us. We’re not playing as well as we need to play.”
A key to victory for the Spartans will be shutting down talented Iowa guard Anthony Clemmons. The freshman has emerged as a serious scoring threat for Hawkeyes. As the point guard is rewarded with more playing time, Clemmons rewards McCaffery with increasingly better numbers. In 26 minutes versus the Wolverines, Clemmons notched 12 points and seven assists. MSU’s Izzo has noticed improvement from the youngster over the course of the season. “At one time I thought he was playing pretty well, then he slacked off a little bit and now he’s starting to play better again,” Izzo said. “He is running this team. It’s interesting….He’s done a very good job.”
An interesting twist regarding Clemmons is his recruitment. A Lansing native, Clemmons attended Lansing Sexton High School, where he helped the Big Reds claim Michigan’s Class B championship. But Izzo did not recruit Clemmons, as he did Denzel Valentine, Clemmons’ former teammate. Izzo has recently taken some flak for this decision not to go after the young playmaker. “People say, ‘why didn’t you recruit him?’ You know, it wasn’t what we needed at the time. It had nothing to do with whether he’s good enough to play or not. It had to do with what you need and what you’re looking for. I’m happy for him,” Izzo explained.
An interesting matchup is now set between MSU’s Valentine and Iowa’s Clemmons. Despite the storyline, Izzo sees no problem in the two former Lansing Sexton teammates squaring off. “I got asked a question from a guy on the conference call from Iowa, what it would be like for Valentine to go against his former teammate, but I said he one-upped that. He went against his own brother for Oakland.” As for Clemmons going against Valentine, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery issued the same sentiment, showing no concern for the matter. “I don’t worry about him too much with that kind of stuff. I don’t think it will impact him at all.”
Izzo may soon regret not keeping Clemmons in East Lansing. But there is little he can do about it, as McCaffery will not be giving up his developing playmaker any time soon. The Iowa coach is keen on the young point guard, noting the youngster’s development. “I think every game for him, he seems to get better. Even if he doesn’t have the kind of numbers that he had on Sunday, which were obviously very good, 14 [points] and 7 [assists], he just seems to be learning quite a bit,” McCaffery said. “We’re hitting him with a lot of stuff, [we] threw him right in there. There’s things he forgets to do. He just keeps working and concentrating. I’m really, really pleased with his professionalism in terms of how he approaches things.”