Leistikow: Hawkeyes get knocked down by a Big Ten heavyweight

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With a destructive second-half blitz Thursday night, Michigan State showed why it’s the king of the Big Ten Conference.

Iowa, meanwhile, showed why it’s not ready to win a fight with the big boys.

Not a 40-minute one, anyway.

The 21st-ranked Hawkeyes were overpowered and frustrated by the fifth-ranked Spartans, 82-67, before a crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena that was hopeful this would be their home team’s breakthrough moment.

Instead, it felt awfully familiar — especially against this opponent. Iowa got blitzed in December in East Lansing, and blitzed again here ... without an answer.

“It’s not like we played 40 bad minutes,” Iowa forward Tyler Cook said. “We really only played maybe eight to nine bad minutes. There’s a lot we can learn, a lot we can get better from.”

From Cook to Luka Garza to coach Fran McCaffery, the Iowa side was trying to carefully bite its tongue about a glaring free-throw disparity.

Late in the game, the Spartans had attempted 20 free throws to Iowa’s four.

Iowa's Luka Garza, left, and Michigan State's Xavier Tillman tussle for a loose ball Thursday night. The Hawkeyes lost, 82-67.

Of course, it’s been a well-documented theme of the Hawkeyes’ strong season that their formula to success was marching to the foul line. They entered the game leading the country in free throws made and attempted.

On this night, Iowa shot a season-low eight free throws. Its season average is 27.5. Michigan State shot 21, making 20 of them.

After a question about why the free-throw ratio was 5 to 1 for the key part of the game, McCaffery paused for a long time. He goes to great lengths to avoid publicly criticizing officials.

Iowa’s sports information director called for the next question. But after some further thought, McCaffery finally piped up.

“Our game plan was to throw the ball inside. And we did. Many times,” he said. “Threw it in there a lot.”

So, you guys were aggressive enough?

“Phenomenally aggressive,” he replied. “The most aggressive we’ve been all year long. Tonight.”

Point taken.

But, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. This is how the Spartans play. It’s part of the formula that’s led that program to seven Final Four appearances in 23-plus years under coach Tom Izzo.

Izzo praised his players for defending better, without fouling, after Iowa charged to a 50-42 second-half lead.

Iowa, obviously, saw things differently. And it wasn’t able to overcome the frustration that was building.

“We were prepared for it. We knew the refs aren’t always going to call it,” said sophomore center Luka Garza, who spent many of his 26 minutes tussling inside with Michigan State’s Nick Ward. “If they were calling everything, there would be a foul every time down, both ends.”

Cook, who entered with a team-high 123 free-throw attempts, got one Thursday in his 35 minutes.

“You kind of know what it is going into a game with Michigan State. You don’t always get the whistles you normally get,” said Cook, who scored 11 of his 17 points in the first four minutes of the second half when Iowa was rolling. “Can’t take anything away from them, though. That’s a great ball club.”


That’s the bigger takeaway on this night, not the foul disparity.

Michigan State's 42 points in the first 14 minutes of the second half weren't solely due to a lack of whistles. Iowa's defense was too ineffective, no matter who was on the floor.

Tip your cap to Michigan State, which has won 21 Big Ten regular-season games in a row — a remarkable 12 of those coming on the rugged road. The Spartans have a fantastic point guard in Cassius Winston, a powerful big man in Ward ... and a masterful coach in Izzo.

Iowa can’t let one second-half collapse — and a widespread poor shooting performance (5-for-24 accuracy from 3-point range, many of the misses on plainly open looks) — against a terrific team turn into a full-blown relapse.

It’s time to turn the page and go get Minnesota.

This loss, as frustrating as it might have been on many levels, isn’t going to do much damage to the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament chances. They entered with an NCAA NET ranking of 22, and they’ll probably wake up Friday somewhere in the 20s.

Beat Minnesota, and you're probably right back at 22 ... or even better.

Although this felt like the biggest game for Iowa’s program in two seasons, Hawkeye players are fond of saying that the next game is the biggest game.

So, Sunday’s 4 p.m. trip to the Barn in Minneapolis becomes a gut-check test for this Hawkeye team that still stands with a fine 16-4 overall record, 5-4 in the Big Ten — half of those losses being to a complete opponent that looks like a Final Four outfit.

“We understand it’s one league game. … That’s the nature of this league, understanding that each night’s a beast,” senior Nicholas Baer said. “Our coaches will have us ready for Minnesota.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.