Iowa's Luka Garza knows it takes toughness to beat Michigan State, and it starts with him

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Normally, Michigan State is the last basketball team you’d want to face when trying to snap a two-game losing streak.

But this is not a normal basketball season, and this is not the caliber of Spartans team that Big Ten Conference opponents have grown used to facing.

And that brings us to this unlikely sentence: No. 8 Iowa should be able to push Michigan State around Carver-Hawkeye Arena when they meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a game broadcast on FS1. Because the Hawkeyes have Luka Garza, and the Spartans do not.

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Garza is well aware that Iowa has lost five consecutive games in this series. He can count the scars. The Spartans are the only Big Ten team that Garza has never been able to celebrate defeating. And they are a wounded bunch this winter, having lost three in a row and now confronting the Hawkeyes just two days after falling at Ohio State.

“We know that this team is not a team that’s just going to roll over,” Garza said diplomatically when asked about Michigan State’s struggles Monday.

“They’ll get it going at some point. We’re trying to make sure that it’s not (Tuesday).”

Michigan State is 8-6 overall, but just 2-6 in league play. Xavier Tillman is no longer around to defend Garza. Cassius Winston won’t be controlling play as an elite point guard.

Iowa (12-4, 6-3) has the advantages in talent, experience and strength in this matchup. And the Hawkeye players who spoke to the media Monday mentioned one more item working in their favor — motivation.

Last February, Iowa center Luka Garza had to contend with the punishing defense of Michigan State's Xavier Tillman. He won't on Tuesday, when a wounded Spartans team visits Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Garza said it's important for the Hawkeyes to be the tougher team in order to snap a five-game losing streak against Michigan State. That will start with him.

The Hawkeyes have their sights set on a Big Ten title, while the Spartans are merely trying to regain some relevance. That is why Iowa was so stung by back-to-back losses against Indiana and Illinois. And that is why Michigan State may be catching the Hawkeyes at the worst possible time.

Iowa junior Joe Wieskamp said the team had one of its most intense practices of the season Sunday, two days after falling 80-75 at bitter rival Illinois.

“It’s a combination of learning from our mistakes in that game and channeling that energy and motivation from those couple losses into this week and really taking it out on these teams that are in front of us,” Wieskamp said, calling it an opportunity to get three wins in six days.

Iowa hosts Ohio State on Thursday and visits Indiana on Sunday.

It is unknown whether shooting guard CJ Fredrick will be back in action after missing the Illinois game with a lower leg injury. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Fredrick was planning on practicing a little Monday and then a determination will be made.

With Fredrick out, McCaffery started freshman Keegan Murray for the first time. He scored eight points and led the Hawkeyes with eight rebounds against Illinois. Murray was excited to get the start, but not happy with his performance.

“I made a lot of mistakes that I need to correct going into our future games,” Murray said.

“We’re highly motivated to win those games and start getting our rhythm going into March.”

Murray, at 6-foot-8, injects more size into the Hawkeye lineup. His 18 blocked shots rank second on the team, and he is tied for the lead with 17 steals.

That will help Garza contend with the mass of bodies that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo likes to throw at him. So will the presence of backup post player Jack Nunge, who is 6-11 with a 7-3 wingspan.

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Last season, Iowa lost 78-70 at Michigan State. Fredrick missed that game as well, with forward Ryan Kriener replacing him in the starting lineup. The Spartans, led by Tillman, clutched at Garza all night, “holding” him to 20 points. Kriener had 18.

Garza expects more of the same Tuesday.

“We understand what we’re going into with this game. We know how we have to bring it and how physical we have to be and how well we have to rebound. Because this is a team that prides itself on being the tougher team, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Garza said.

“I’m ready for anything. I’ve worked on my game a lot and I’m definitely stronger than last year.”

That’s Garza’s way of challenging himself, and his teammates, to be the aggressors, to play like they truly believe they are the superior team. Michigan State has no one who can stop Garza. Murray and Nunge give him two capable enforcers. The paint should belong to the Hawkeyes this time.

Garza said he’s impressed by Murray’s drive to be great. He’s also been watching Nunge improve for four years, even though he sat out for most of two seasons. Nunge blocked four shots against Illinois, but afterward was left with a feeling of regret over not being able to secure a key defensive rebound late.

Fran McCaffery said he pointed out that failure to Nunge, but also said: “We wouldn't have been in the position we were in if it wasn't for Jack Nunge, and I thought he played great.”

Garza credited Nunge’s defense against him in practice for helping him prepare to face high-quality Big Ten centers in games. He went one step farther, saying Nunge himself is one of the league’s best post players, predicting fans will see that for themselves soon.

“He’s getting better and better. I’ve watched him in practice for a couple of years. He still hasn’t shown everything he has, and he will,” Garza said. “I’m excited for that moment to come. Because he’s one of the better players in this league and I honestly think that.”

That’s what Iowa will throw at Michigan State on Tuesday: Garza, Murray, Nunge and plenty of elbows.

If this is a test of toughness, as Garza said, the Hawkeyes need to prove that they have more of it this year than the Spartans.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.