Leistikow: Fran McCaffery finds hustling combinations to unlock Iowa win against Michigan State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — No matter how good the players are, no matter how good the coaching is, there’s one minimum ingredient that it always takes to beat Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.
So when Iowa coach Fran McCaffery saw hustle plays and in-your-face defense from an unconventional lineup Tuesday night, he kept rolling with it.
In the first half, when Iowa trailed by nine points, a group of Joe Toussaint, Tony Perkins, Patrick McCaffery, Connor McCaffery and Jack Nunge sparked a comeback.
In the second half of a tight Big Ten Conference game, the grouping of Toussaint, Perkins, Patrick McCaffery, Nunge and Luka Garza triggered a late surge.
And with a lot of tried-and-true veterans sitting on the bench more than they surely liked, the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes outlasted Michigan State for the first time in more than five years, by a count of 84-78 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It’s not like I went into the game and (thought) ‘I’m going to go with that lineup.’ But that lineup was on the floor,” Fran McCaffery said. “That lineup played well together.”
A longtime nemesis — even in a down year, by Spartan standards — had been defeated, with the help of some guards that caught Izzo, well, off guard.
“(McCaffery) benched some of his guys. I give him credit, man,” Izzo said of his coaching counterpart. “… Those other two guards (Toussaint and Perkins) are the ones that hurt us. And they just drove us and went to the free-throw line.”
Izzo’s answer continued with some digs at the officiating crew of Donnie Eppley, Courtney Green and Steve McJunkins. Perhaps the veteran coach was planting some seeds for the Feb. 13 rematch in East Lansing.
“Thirty-five free throws (attempted by Iowa). I mean, they just jumped into you. (They’d) drive into you and then every time you touched the big guy (Garza), there was a foul,” Izzo said. “And I didn't appreciate that.
"I thought there were some ridiculous calls. And I don't say that very often, but I'm going to say it.”
Hey, what makes officials call more fouls?
(Psst. And lots of grabby defense.)
Izzo isn’t accustomed to being on the receiving end of Iowa aggression.
Being the aggressor matters. And the guys McCaffery had on the floor toward the end of Tuesday’s game — when Iowa stretched its lead from 69-68 to 79-70, with 3:37 to go — kept the pressure on the Spartans.
The Hawkeyes experienced a different fate four nights earlier in a loss at Illinois, when they didn’t draw a foul in the final 10 minutes.
Was McCaffery sending a message to four starters who spent a lot of time seated on black folding chairs during the game?
Joe Wieskamp (five points, one rebound in 24:27) sat for a stretch of 6:43 in the first half, then for 7:46 in the second.
Jordan Bohannon (nine points, two assists in 19:42) was replaced by Toussaint with 12:45 to go in the game, then didn’t return until 1:56 remained.
CJ Fredrick (two points in 11:34), who was battling his lower-leg injury, didn’t play in the final 12:45.
Connor McCaffery (two points, 1-of-7 shooting in 18:47) didn’t play the final 13:39.
“Coach has always been like that. ... If somebody’s playing well and playing better than the starter, they’re going to play,” said Garza, who finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds in a team-high 35:23 of court time. “My freshman year, I was starting most of the year, and there were games that I didn’t play that much.
“It doesn’t matter who’s out there. I don’t think the intent was to send a message, but … those (other) guys were giving us some great minutes.”
As I took notes throughout the game, I noted a few hustle plays that were game-turners.
I first highlighted a sequence with Iowa down, 32-23.
Connor McCaffery missed a 3-point try, but younger brother Patrick (four points, four rebounds in 15:01) scrambled to scoop up the long rebound. He got the ball to Toussaint, who tried to score inside but missed. However, Nunge (12 points, eight rebounds in 22:58) was there for a putback and drew the foul — then made the free throw — to close the gap to 32-26. A third-chance, three-point play instead of an empty trip and perhaps a double-digit Michigan State lead.
The other spots I circled were in the second half, with two crucial offensive rebounds from Keegan Murray that led to buckets by the two surprise guys Izzo referenced.
With Iowa up 67-66, Murray sliced his way into the lane to collect the carom off Garza’s one-and-one miss. That led to Toussaint (10 points, six assists in 20:44) finding space in the lane for two second-chance points and a three-point lead.
Then, with Iowa up three again, Murray (seven points, four rebounds in 15:11) made another hustle play to collect a Garza miss. Murray worked the ball to Perkins (four points in 13:16), who aggressively worked into the lane for two off the glass. That’s a true freshman-to-true freshman connection for a 73-68 lead. Izzo called for timeout, sensing the Iowa reserves taking the game away from the Spartans.
You've got to love this attitude from Perkins afterward: “If I’m on the floor, I’m going to produce.”
And this, from Toussaint: “Nobody on the bench views ourselves as bench players.”
Fran McCaffery knows that guys like Bohannon and Wieskamp and his oldest son are fierce competitors. He knows he needs their best as Iowa (13-4 overall, 7-3 Big Ten) hits the halfway mark of league play, especially if Fredrick needs to miss more time.
They probably didn’t love watching from the sideline. But if they take it the right way, this Hawkeye victory that revealed more quality depth (39 bench points on 13-of-18 shooting) could have been one of the most encouraging yet.
“That’s a slippery slope, I guess,” Fran McCaffery conceded. “You want your starters to be confident that they’re going to consistently play a certain number of minutes and get a certain number of shots. But as you saw, every game is different.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.