Star forward Jarrod Uthoff discusses the toughness aspect of facing one of the country's top teams. Chad Leistikow | Hawkcentral.com
EAST LANSING, Mich. – How tough is this Iowa basketball team? We’re about to find out.
The ultimate grit litmus test comes Thursday night, as the 16th-ranked Hawkeyes put their surprising unbeaten start to the Big Ten Conference season on the line at No. 4 Michigan State. Awaiting them will be a raucous Breslin Center crowd that’ll be all over the visitors – led by the students positioned behind Iowa’s bench.
“It’s being able to compete and having the toughness,” said Iowa star Jarrod Uthoff, a fifth-year senior who has been through the Big Ten wars. “Maybe some calls won’t go your way. Maybe some rebounds won’t go your way. But you’ve just got to fight.”
Iowa knows it’ll have to do more than make shots and defend against Michigan State, which owns just about every check-box advantage going into this battle.
No. 1 on that list for the Spartans (16-1, 3-1) is motivation, fueled by its only loss of the season 16 days prior in Iowa City.
“As of right now, we’re their only loss,” said Iowa senior guard Anthony Clemmons, a Lansing, Mich., product. “That taste is in their mouth still, so we know that’s going to have a big impact on them.”
No. 2 is the return of Denzel Valentine to the starting lineup. Perhaps the early-season leader for Big Ten MVP didn’t play because of a knee injury in that 83-70 loss to the Hawkeyes on Dec. 29. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound do-it-all senior can take over a game.
“He's one of the leading scorers in our league, but he may impact the game more with his passing than anything else,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He loads everybody up and makes everybody else better. The impact that he has on the game and their ability to score is dramatically different.”
No. 3, the Breslin Center has been a house of doom for the Hawkeyes (12-3, 3-0). They have lost 18 straight here, with their last triumph in East Lansing coming in 1993, an emotional rally in the first game following the tragic death of Chris Street.
“I don't think you can put too much into, 'Hey, they have beaten you a certain amount of times,' ” McCaffery said, “because they are one of the premier teams in the country. … They win most of the times that they play.”
You can bet Michigan State coach Tom Izzo will look for every edge at home – cue Hawkeye fans’ eye rolls as ESPN’s 6 p.m. national broadcast cuts to him working the officiating crew – to avoid getting swept by an Iowa team that has won five in a row.
But if any Iowa team has the makeup to go into a hostile environment and steal one from a top-five team (which in November beat current No. 1 Kansas behind Valentine’s incredible line of 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists), it’s this one. With four battle-tested seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, McCaffery’s sixth Iowa team is groomed for road success.
They went 7-3 in true road games a year ago and recently ended a 10-year losing streak at Purdue’s Mackey Arena. Iowa overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to win that one, 70-63, and launch itself into the national rankings for the first time in a year.
The Hawkeyes are braced for the ebbs and flows of a game that will have Big Ten title implications.
“If they jump out all over us, they jump out all over us. If they make a couple shots, no big deal,” said Uthoff, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 18.6 points per game (Valentine is third at 17.8) and nation’s No. 2 shot blocker (3.33 a game). “The most important thing is not to get rattled. They’re going to hit a couple shots in a row. That’s a fact of basketball. People go on runs. We’ve just got to weather them.”
That’s a mature perspective from Iowa’s star player, and it matches a quiet confidence in this group, which by the way isn’t scarred by any Breslin Center hex.
Iowa’s senior class has actually only played once in there. Only one of the last seven meetings in this series has been played in East Lansing (four at Iowa City, two in the Big Ten Tournament). In Iowa’s one loss here, 86-76 two seasons ago, it led at halftime and was within two before the game spun out of control in the final 13 minutes.
With all the experience, there are questions marks surrounding the Hawkeyes for this particular game.
There’s the uncertain health of Clemmons, Iowa’s lock-down defender who held Spartans guard Bryn Forbes (14.4 points per game) to three points in Iowa City. Clemmons is dealing with a hip injury that has limited his practice time, and he said Tuesday he wasn’t able to cut and move like he wants to.
And there’s the rust issue. Iowa won’t have played in nine days, since the 77-66 win over Nebraska on Jan. 5. The Hawkeyes can’t afford to come out flat like they did at Purdue.
A better scenario would be the type of start they had at No. 4 Iowa State – taking a 20-point lead in the first half. That may not be possible, but Iowa believes it’s well-prepared for what’s ahead.
“We’re always confident,” said Gesell, who is averaging 6.9 assists a game. “We feel like every game we play in, we should win it.”
Whether Iowa’s good enough to overcome one of the top rosters in the country that is coming off an impressive 27-point win at Penn State is to be determined.
But rest assured, Iowa is prepared for the fight.
“Michigan State’s always a physical team. They’re trying to get up in your space. They chuck you off cuts. (They’re) really physical,” Uthoff said. “Our ability to fight through that physical-ness will determine the game.”
Who: No. 16 Iowa (12-3, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (16-1, 3-1)
When, where: 6 p.m. CT, Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.
TV: ESPN (Announcers: Jason Benetti, Jim Calhoun)
Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network. Sirius/XM Channel 84.
Game notes: Iowa is riding a nine-game regular-season Big Ten winning streak, the program’s longest in 46 years. … Michigan State is 8-0 at home this season, with an average margin of victory of 26 points. … The Spartans rank No. 1 nationally in rebound margin (plus-13.6). They outrebounded Iowa, 41-35, on Dec. 29. … Wednesday marked Iowa center Adam Woodbury’s 22nd birthday. Iowa is 3-0 on games on or surrounding his birthday, including the Hawkeyes’ last road win over a top-five team: 84-74 at No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 12, 2014.