Hawkeyes expecting a battle from struggling Spartans

Ryan Murken
Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder and Claire Till watch Melissa Dixon sink a 3-pointer during the Hawkeyes' win against Northwestern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday. The Hawkeyes look to move to 5-1 in the Big Ten against Michigan State.

A ranked team pushing for the conference lead facing a squad that is a game from the cellar in the conference standings is often a mismatch.

That's the exact scenario No. 22 Iowa (13-3, 4-1 Big Ten) faces in Sunday's 2 p.m. meeting with Michigan State (9-8, 1-5 Big Ten) at the Breslin Center.

Except no one in black and gold is expecting anything close to a mismatch.

"The thing I know about (Michigan State coach) Suzy Merchant is she's a competitor and she will have them ready," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "It will be Sunday and there will be 7,000 or 8,000 people there and it is going to be a very hostile environment."

A big reason Iowa expects a battle on Sunday is Michigan State isn't a typical bottom-of-the-league team.

The Spartans appeared in the first eight Associated Press polls of the season and were ranked as high as 14th.

Michigan State opened the season 8-3, with all three losses coming to nationally ranked teams Notre Dame, Georgia and Baylor.

Since the 8-3 start Michigan State has been a mystery.

The Spartans lost five consecutive games to open Big Ten play before a 63-56 win over Illinois on Thursday.

"Michigan State is interesting," Bluder said. "They were playing really pretty good basketball and then all of a sudden the Big Ten hit, and I've heard they have had the flu go through their team. They've had some injuries. They had lost one of their starters that just quit a week ago, so they have had some upheaval in their program."

Slow start or not, struggles or no struggles, Michigan State has big-time talent, led by the sophomore duo of Aerial Powers and Tori Jankoska.

Both Powers (21.3 ppg) and Jankoska (17.4) rank in the top five in the Big Ten in scoring and join junior center Becca Mills (10.4) in a trio of double-digit Spartan scorers.

Powers is the Spartans' headliner and ranks among the Big Ten's best.

The 6-foot forward is the only Big Ten player to rank in the top three in scoring and rebounding (11.5 per game) and also averages 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game.

"It's a good basketball team traditionally and coach Merchant always has them ready," Iowa senior Samantha Logic said.

Another reason the Hawkeyes know nothing will come easy is that the Spartans have controlled the recent series against Iowa.

Michigan State has won two games in a row against Iowa by double figures, including a 88-72 win in Iowa City in the only meeting last season.

"As a competitor you kind of keep those things in the back of your mind so you can have that chip on your shoulder," Logic said of last year's loss. "Obviously they are a very good basketball team that has hit a couple of bumps but we know they are going to be ready on Sunday."

While the Spartans have struggled in Big Ten play, one thing Michigan State hasn't had a hard time doing is rebounding.

The Spartans are second in the league in rebounding margin, grabbing 8.4 more rebounds per game than opponents, while Iowa has been outrebounded by an average of 4.4 rebounds per game.

The final reason Bluder and her team expect a struggle Sunday is the crowd.

Michigan State had more than 4,000 fans at Thursday's win over Illinois and drew more than 8,100 for its last weekend home game.

"I would rather play in an environment that has great energy, even if they are cheering against you than just a dead, lackadaisical environment," Bluder said. "So, yeah, they will be cheering against us, but I will remind our team the sweetest sound is to make them be quiet."

Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.

No. 22 Iowa (13-3, 4-1 Big Ten) at Michigan State (9-8, 1-5 Big Ten)

• Specifics — 2 p.m. Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.

• Following the game — TV: ESPN2. Radio: KXIC (800 AM), WMT (AM 600), WHO (1040 AM) Hawkeye Radio Network. Live scoring:

• Preview — Picked second in the Big Ten preseason poll, Michigan State snapped a five-game losing skid to open conference play with a 63-56 win over Illinois on Thursday. Sophomore Aerial Powers is the Big Ten's second leading scorer at 21.3 points per game.