Leistikow: Laying out the high-stakes week for Hawkeye basketball
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Iowa’s two best players have each played once in the Breslin Center.
Suffice it to say that each had a forgettable experience.
Luka Garza? He went 1-for-10 from the floor in the Hawkeyes’ 90-68 loss on Dec. 3, 2018.
Joe Wieskamp? He left his first Big Ten Conference road game with eight points and a badly sprained ankle.
The Hawkeyes’ two stars have come a long way since that shellacking.
Garza is a national player of the year candidate and will be aiming for his 13th straight game of 20-plus points. Wieskamp is Garza’s wing man and a top-10 scorer in the Big Ten.
But there’s a lot more than redemption on the line in their return trip to the Breslin Center.
The winner of Tuesday’s 6 p.m., ESPN2-televised showdown between No. 17 Iowa (19-8, 10-6 Big Ten) and No. 24 Michigan State (18-9, 10-6) will stand alone in second place in the conference with three games to play. For the visiting Hawkeyes, it won’t be easy. It never is at Michigan State.
“It’s just a crazy environment. Very hostile,” Wieskamp said. “Their student section is right on the court, around the whole arena. It’s going to be tough to play there, for sure. They’re a really tough team. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
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Fran McCaffery is 1-5 as Iowa’s coach in East Lansing. The losses were by 19, 34, 10, 11 and 22 points.
Now that’s something Iowa can hang its hope on.
The 2016 Hawkeyes met a vulnerable Spartans team and blitzed them 76-59 as part of a 7-0 Big Ten start. Michigan State lost its next home game, too, against Nebraska.
Why is that notable?
Because until last week, that was the last time a Tom Izzo-coached team had lost back-to-back home games. The Spartans enter Tuesday’s matchup having lost two straight at home. Now, the losses were hardly to slouches — to 14th-ranked Penn State and eighth-ranked Maryland — but they were losses, nonetheless.
But here’s the bad news: Michigan State hasn’t lost three straight at home since the 1996-97 season — Izzo’s second as head coach.
The Spartans were the national preseason No. 1 team, and they have the statistical profile to show that they probably should be on top of the Big Ten. In conference games, they rank first in scoring margin (plus-6.1), second to Iowa in field-goal percentage (44.2%) and first in field-goal percentage defense (37.9%). But for whatever reason, they haven’t put it all together in the win column.
They weren't supposed to be a nine-loss team in late February.
So Tuesday night — and this week in general, with the Nittany Lions on deck Saturday — is filled with opportunity for the Hawkeyes.
McCaffery said Monday he’s “never really gotten into standings” during his coaching career, preferring to prepare for each game as it comes and not worry about the stakes at hand. His players, however, are keenly aware of the standings and what needs to be done.
They can see that although Maryland still holds a two-game lead in the Big Ten, the Terrapins don’t have any gimmes in their final four — at Minnesota, home for Michigan State, at Rutgers, home for Michigan.
You don't have to look hard to find two losses in that gauntlet, which would open the door for Iowa (or others) to make a run toward first place. This is a good time to drop in a reminder that Iowa has neither won nor shared a Big Ten regular-season title since 1979.
Now, if you are a standings person, here are the six teams chasing the Terps and their remaining schedules:
Iowa (10-6) — at Michigan State, vs. Penn State, vs. Purdue, at Illinois. One of the tougher slates of the top seven, if not the toughest.
Michigan State (10-6) — vs. Iowa, at Maryland, at Penn State, vs. Ohio State. Not an easy out in the bunch, but the Spartans usually peak late.
Penn State (10-6) — vs. Rutgers, at Iowa, vs. Michigan State, at Northwestern. A 4-0 finish is within reach, but the Nittany Lions are coming off a two-loss week.
Wisconsin (10-6) — at Michigan, vs. Minnesota, vs. Northwestern, at Indiana. Two friendly home games help the Badgers’ shot at a double bye.
Illinois (10-6, after beating Nebraska Monday night) — at Northwestern, vs. Indiana, at Ohio State, vs. Iowa. A good chance the Illini and Hawkeyes will play for a double bye on March
Michigan (9-7) — vs. Wisconsin, at Ohio State, vs. Nebraska, at Maryland. The league’s hottest team is coming off back-to-back road wins in tough environments (Rutgers, Purdue).
The Hawkeyes’ rugged path realistically looks more likely that they'll finish sixth or seventh than first or second. But the punchy bunch has continued to surprise us at every turn.
So, buckle up and get ready for a high-stakes week of Hawkeye basketball. Given their previous trip to Michigan State, Garza and Wieskamp will be determined to get it off to a good start.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.