There is no shortage of opportunities this week for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
An opportunity to take advantage of opening Big Ten play at home. An opportunity to take down two top-15 teams, including the No. 1 team in the nation. Ultimately, there is a chance for Iowa to position itself as a formidable contender, both in the conference and in the country.
The Hawkeyes (9-3) open the Big Ten schedule against top-ranked Michigan State (13-0) at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. On Saturday, Iowa travels to West Lafayette, Ind., for a matchup with No. 14 Purdue (12-1).
Iowa can exploit a huge absence for the Spartans, who will be without top player Denzel Valentine. The senior guard is out with a knee injury and won’t return for at least one more week. Valentine is Michigan State’s leading scorer (18.5) and rebounder (8.3). Still, the Spartans’ loaded roster presents a tough contest for the Hawkeyes.
“They’re a team that was essentially playing 13 guys, so now they’re playing 12,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday. “When you play the No. 1 team in the country, there’s a much smaller margin for error. That’s where the mental toughness comes in. Limiting your mistakes, giving yourself a chance to score every time down, not turning it over, not taking bad shots, not having breakdowns from an execution standpoint.”
Entering league action, Iowa and Michigan State are both near the top of the stat sheet on offense. Iowa is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 82.6 points per game, while coach Tom Izzo’s club is third at 81.2 points per game.
Bryn Forbes is the go-to player for the Spartans with Valentine out. Forbes scored 32 points in a 99-93 overtime win over Oakland Dec. 22. The senior guard is now averaging 14.2 points and ranks 10th in the nation in 3-point percentage (49.4).
For the Hawkeyes, senior forward Jarrod Uthoff captures most of the attention from opponents. Uthoff averages 18.3 points, followed by Peter Jok (13.3), Anthony Clemmons (8.8), Adam Woodbury (8.8), and Mike Gesell (7.9).
“Last year, we went to (Uthoff) a lot,” McCaffery said. “He might get the No. 1 defender. … They’re going to mix in some physicality and switching and rotate guys. That’s what most teams have done, is try to rotate fresh personnel in. He’s pretty much used to that.”
Iowa, which is unranked but well-regarded in both the KenPom (17) and Sagarin (21) ratings, can be in a prime spot in the Big Ten after this week.
Tuesday night will lead off that quest.
“Once you get into league play, you can lose to anybody and you can beat anybody,” McCaffery said. “That’s how every team looks at it, no matter who you are. We don’t look past the first game. We’re playing a team that many thought is the best team in our league. They’re presently No. 1 in the country, so when you’re playing a team that’s the best, you hope to play your best and continue to grow.
“We’ve played well at times, we’ve not played well at times. We want to be a little more consistent. This will be a great challenge for us.”
Reach Matt Cozzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5409, and follow him on Twitter at @matt_cozzi.
The Iowa senior leads the 9-3 Hawkeyes in scoring.