IOWA CITY, Ia. — I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with a Michigan State basketball reporter before the Spartans played at Iowa in February of 2011.
It was shortly before tipoff, and the Hawkeyes were well on their way to a fourth straight losing record in coach Fran McCaffery’s debut season. The attendance reflected apathy. The announced crowd that night was 12,158. The actual scanned attendance was 4,059 for a game that Iowa won, 72-52.
“Do you think they’ll ever fill this place again?” he asked me.
I don’t know, I told him. In truth, I had my doubts.
So here we are, three seasons removed from that discussion. Tuesday night, No. 3 Michigan State visits No. 10 Iowa. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is sold out. And the Hawkeyes will be trying to win a 21st straight home game, which would tie the longest streak in the 32-year-old home of Iowa basketball.
Those fans will watch the biggest league game Iowa has played in since Feb. 18, 2006, when its Big Ten hopes were crushed in a 74-61 loss at underdog Minnesota. The Gophers finished 10th in the conference that season. The Hawkeyes followed that loss up with another one at Illinois and tied the Illini for second place, one game behind champion Ohio State.
Now Iowa is in contention for its first regular-season Big Ten title since the 1978-79 season, but Michigan’s play has shrunk the window of opportunity.
The Hawkeyes, 16-4 overall, are 5-2 in the Big Ten. Michigan is 7-0, including a victory over Iowa last week and another at Michigan State Saturday. The Wolverines have also won at Wisconsin, and are the first team since Iowa in 1986-87 to beat three top-10 teams in a row.
The Wolverines, with home games against Purdue and Nebraska sandwiched around one at Indiana, are favored to come to Iowa City for a Feb. 8 game with an 11-game winning streak overall and a 10-0 Big Ten record.
Michigan State will limp into Carver-Hawkeye, both from the loss to its in-state rival and a series of injuries that would have crushed a lesser team. Tom Izzo’s coaching acumen has never shined brighter.
Adreian Payne, the Spartans’ star forward, hasn’t played the last four games with a sprained foot. Forward Branden Dawson is out several weeks after breaking his hand. Point guard Keith Appling is playing with back and wrist injuries. But somehow, some way, the Spartans are 7-1 in the Big Ten and 18-2 overall.
“In the 30 years I’ve been here, I’ve never been more proud of a team,” Izzo said after the Michigan loss.
Gary Harris remains the Spartans’ star. He averages 18.8 points a game, and had a career-high 27 against Michigan. His defense is unmatched.
“If Harris isn’t the best player on both ends of the court in the league, God bless whoever is,” Izzo said.
Iowa will be facing a wounded team Tuesday. And a team that is second to none when it comes to toughness. And it’s a game the Hawkeyes must win if they want to keep realistic Big Ten title hopes alive.
“Obviously we’re well aware of what Michigan State has done this year, and what they’ve done under coach Izzo,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got to be one of the best teams in the country, and they’ve done it with Payne out, which is impressive. (Izzo’s) done a great job of developing his bench. It will be a phenomenal atmosphere.”
Iowa’s 0-7 record against top-25 teams last season is why it played in the NIT, and not the NCAA. That included a 62-59 home loss to the 18th-ranked Spartans. Iowa had a three-point lead when it failed a track down an offensive rebound with just over a minute to play. The ball ended up in the hands of Harris, who was fouled by Aaron White shooting a 3. Harris made all three free throws.
On Iowa’s next possession, Dawson stole Mike Gesell’s pass intended for Zach McCabe, and dunked it in transition. Iowa, playing without an injured Devyn Marble, never recovered.
Opportunity presents itself again Tuesday, in a 6 p.m. game televised by ESPN. A loss here, and the Hawkeyes will fall another step behind the sprinting Wolverines.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter from Iowa City Tuesday: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball