Spartans, Hawkeyes jockey for position as battle for Big Ten title heats up


Cassius Winston (Photo: Ian Gilmour / WDBM)

Brendan Schabath, General Assignment Reporter

EAST LANSING — The Michigan State Spartans will host the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Breslin Center on Tuesday at 7 p.m.  This game marks the first of a very important four-game stretch for each team. The Hawkeyes and Spartans enter the contest in a four-way tie together for second place in the Big Ten along with Penn State and Wisconsin. 

Prior to this past weekend, it appeared the Big Ten was going to be a two-team race between Penn State and Maryland. However, they both lost to Indiana and Ohio State respectively, and immediately put the Big Ten regular season title back up for grabs. 

The Hawkeyes travel to East Lansing with a 10-6 conference record and have won three of their last five contests. One of those losses, however, was a crushing 104-68 defeat in Mackey Arena at the hands of a Purdue team who, despite being 7-10 in the conference, has continuously shaken up the Big Ten standings this season with upset wins. 

Despite recent slip-ups, the Hawkeyes still have arguably the best big man in college basketball in Luka Garza. He’s currently averaging 23 points and almost 10 rebounds per game, along with 56% shooting from the floor and 38% behind the arc. Michigan State’s frontcourt has been subpar this year with Xavier Tillman’s inconsistency and Marcus Bingham Jr.’s lack of offensive prowess. Expect to see a game plan built around doubling Garza down low and rotating defensively to shut down Iowa’s 3-point shooters. 

Iowa has struggled as of late, but Michigan State has been even worse. The Spartans are just 5-5 in their last 10 games with major causes for concern ahead of another NCAA tournament campaign from Tom Izzo. Michigan State’s three-game losing skid to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan was upended by a late-game, thrilling one-point win in Champaign over the then No. 22-ranked Illinois.

Only to be unraveled by losing to Maryland at home floor after MSU found itself on the wrong side of a 14-0 run from the Terrapins in the final two minutes. 

Michigan State’s Achilles heel all season has been the lack of a consistent third scorer behind Cassius Winston and Tillman. Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Rocket Watts have all been held below a 10 points per game average. Each of them has stood out in separate games and helped the Spartans to victories, yet none of them have done it consistently. If the Spartans plan to still be alive in March moving into April, they are going to need another offensive weapon to open up the floor. 

The trio of C.J. Frederick, Joe Weiskamp and Garza have wreaked havoc on the Big Ten all season, each averaging double digit points this year. Iowa’s big wins this season have been combated with some bad losses to lower tier Big Ten teams. The Hawkeyes haven’t made it past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament since 1999, when they lost in the Sweet 16. Iowa is poised to make a run in this year’s tournament but are going to have elevate themselves to a top-15 college basketball team. They have an opportunity to do so on Tuesday, and moving forward over the next four games. 

Each team needs this win badly and ideally would use it as a start to a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, a difficult yet doable task for both squads. 

The end result is going to be determined by big man play, in particular that of Michigan State. Garza is going to be Garza, but if Bingham Jr. can provide valuable defensive minutes off the bench, and Tillman — who leads the Big Ten in rebounding and is fourth in blocked shots per game — can find his groove offensively against Garza, Michigan State will be in a good position to win.

The Spartans will head to Maryland and Penn State before returning home for their final regular-season game of the year against Ohio State on March 8. The Hawkeyes return to Iowa City for a two-game stint against Penn State and Purdue and will also end their season on March 8 on the road against Illinois.

Brendan Schabath is a general assignment reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @Bschabath3.