CJ Fredrick's return to health gives Iowa a lift as it seeks to sweep Michigan State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — CJ Fredrick felt like crying when he called his parents early this week after a pain-free day of practice with his Iowa basketball team.

That’s how much being out of the Hawkeye lineup had weighed on the sophomore shooting guard. A lower-leg injury had left Fredrick guessing each gameday whether he’d be in uniform or in street clothes.

“It’s just been a lot to manage in my mind,” Fredrick said after playing 17 minutes in Iowa’s victory against Rutgers on Wednesday. “I love this team.”

The feeling is mutual.

Origin story:The decade-old encounter that helped steer CJ Fredrick to Fran McCaffery and Iowa basketball

Fredrick didn’t score a point against the Scarlet Knights. But they had to account for him at the 3-point line, where he is a career 47% shooter. They had to contend with his 6-foot-3 frame on the perimeter, where Fredrick is one of the Hawkeyes’ top defenders.

“I was able to just cut a lot better. Run. Play really good defense, I thought,” Fredrick said. “The scoring and stuff will come.”

“The scoring and stuff” becomes Michigan State’s headache now. The No. 16 Hawkeyes (14-6, 8-5 Big Ten Conference) will be looking for a season sweep of the Spartans (10-7, 4-7) when they meet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Breslin Center. The game is being broadcast nationally on Fox.

This is a sight Big Ten Conference defenses would rather not see: Iowa wing players CJ Fredrick (left) and Joe Wieskamp both in uniform and ready to space the floor to let center Luka Garza work inside. Fredrick returned Wednesday after missing most of five games with a lower-leg injury. The Hawkeyes welcomed him back with a 79-66 win over Rutgers. Next is a Saturday road date with Michigan State.

Iowa beat Michigan State 82-74 in Iowa City 11 days ago. That was a game Fredrick started but couldn’t finish, coming up with two points in 12 first-half minutes before the pain proved intolerable. But Spartans coach Tom Izzo said afterward that Fredrick’s surprise presence forced his team to rethink how it wanted to defend Iowa star center Luka Garza, since double-teaming him off the wing no longer seemed viable.

That’s the threat Fredrick brings to a Hawkeye lineup that already includes Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp, who combined to make eight 3-pointers against Rutgers.

More:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

And Michigan State may find that it is facing a Fredrick who is ready to play extended minutes for the first time since Jan. 17 at Northwestern. Fredrick said he originally felt something wrong in his lower left extremity Jan. 7 at Maryland. Neither he nor the team will specify the injury, but it gradually worsened, forcing Fredrick to miss three entire games and the second halves of two others. Iowa won only one of those.

The last week has seen the pain become manageable, Fredrick said. He felt good after Wednesday’s game and was planning on playing again Saturday.

“I feel like I can start being myself again. Hopefully, that continues,” said Fredrick, whose scoring average is down to 8.2 points per game after a stretch of six games in which he only accumulated 19.

But points don’t reveal Fredrick’s true value, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.

“He’s a guy that just understands how to play. He understands situations,” McCaffery said. “He doesn’t have to score because he’s a terrific passer and he’s a really good defender. He’s an athlete. He’s a tough kid.”

One of McCaffery’s favorite ways to praise a player is to say “he’s not a mistake guy.” Fredrick takes that to the extreme. He has committed only four turnovers all season, none since Dec. 19. That’s offset by 40 assists on an Iowa team that leads the Big Ten in that category at 19.6 per game.

Michigan State averages 17.4, good for second in the league. In the first meeting, each team had 16 assists on 28 made baskets. The Spartans tied a season-high with 12 3-pointers. The Hawkeyes committed a season-low five turnovers. It was an entertaining game for those who enjoy crisp offense.

Iowa center Luka Garza puts up two of his 27 points against Michigan State in a Feb. 2 home win. This basket came at the expense of the Spartans' Julius Marble II. The Hawkeyes scored 42 points in the paint in that victory, an advantage they will try to press again Saturday in the rematch in East Lansing, Mich.

Iowa won by attacking a Michigan State interior that has an abundance of bodies, but not elite talent this season. The Hawkeyes scored 42 points in the paint. They shot 35 free throws.

That could be a good formula for Iowa again Saturday. The Hawkeyes haven’t swept the Spartans in a season since 2015-16. None of the current members of the team had beaten Michigan State even once until Feb. 2.

This version of Spartans is losing the turnover battle. The Spartans are sending opponents to the free-throw line more often than they get there. Play at the point guard and in the post has not been the strengths they usually are.

There may never be a better time to face Michigan State, particularly with the Breslin Center empty of a crowd that normally is as intimidating as any in the country. Iowa sits alone in fifth place in the Big Ten race, hoping to move past Wisconsin and earn a top-four seed in the league tournament, which carries a double-bye.

Fredrick had three assists Wednesday, all of them on baskets by Garza late in Iowa’s win. He was starting to find a rhythm. Garza, who scored 27 points against the Spartans on Feb. 2, smiled when asked what it meant to see Fredrick’s familiar No. 5 back in the lineup.

“He’s another guy who’s going to spread the court for us. He’s probably one of the most consistent shooters in the nation,” Garza said. “Defensively, he’s really, really good at the top of our zone. So it was great to have him back. We were missing him a little bit.”

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.