IOWA CITY, Ia. — Michigan State is the gold standard when it comes to Big Ten basketball.
“If you’re going to win a championship in this league, you’ve got to go through Michigan State,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “That’s the standard Tom (Izzo) has set. We hope to get to that point where we can consistently be that good.”
An opportunity to take a step in that direction arrives at 6 p.m. Tuesday, when No. 15 Iowa hosts No. 7 Michigan State in an important Big Ten game at sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
“They have a lot of tradition, and coach Izzo is one of the best coaches of all time,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “These are the types of games you want to play in. Hats off to Michigan State. They’ve been there, done that. At the same time, you can’t be intimidated by any of that. You want to go out there and win.”
Izzo has a national title and six trips to the Final Four on his resume, with seven Big Ten regular-season titles and three postseason tournament championships. He’s coached the Spartans to 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and is an eight-time national coach of the year.
With that success comes constant attention from opponents, a target on the back that Izzo embraces.
“It is a badge of honor,” Izzo said. “I think it’s a priviledge. I think it’s a compliment. One that even though it has some tough spots to work around, I think it’s a position I’d like to be in a lot.”
Michigan State, 18-2 overall and 7-1 in Big Ten play, has gotten there without some key pieces. Senior center Adreian Payne (16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds) is expected to miss his fifth straight game with a sprained foot. Junior forward Branden Dawson will miss his second straight game with a broken hand. And starting point guard Keith Appling is nursing a wrist injury.
Gary Harris leads the Spartans at 18.8 points game, and is coming off a career-high 27-point game in Saturday’s 80-75 home loss to Michigan. In league games, Harris leads the Big Ten in scoring and steals.
Iowa enters the game 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes won just four league games in 2010-11, McCaffery’s first season.
“I have great respect for them, great respect for Franny and the job he’s done,” Izzo said. “And they’ve done it the right way. They’re built it. They’ve stayed the course. They suffered some tough losses over a couple of years, but now he’s got a veteran team that plays the way he wants to play, with his intensity, and they play hard and they play quick. Hopefully we’re going to be up to the task.”
One of Iowa’s four Big Ten victories in 2010-11 was against Michigan State, 72-52. The Spartans have won the last six meetings, three of them coming in the Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa has won 20 consecutive home games, the fifth-longest streak in the nation, since a 62-59 loss to No. 18 Michigan State on Jan. 10, 2013. Iowa had a three-point lead with just over a minute to play in that one, but Aaron White fouled Harris shooting a 3-pointer, and he made three free throws to tie the game. Then Dawson picked off a Gesell pass intended for Zach McCabe and dunked in transition. Iowa, playing without an injured Devyn Marble, couldn’t answer.
“I still have nightmares about that turnover,” Gesell said.
White also said that game was as an education against a traditional Big Ten power.
“We were young, and we made mistakes against a ranked team,” White said. “We’ve learned a lot.”
A 21st straight home victory Tuesday would be the longest streak in the 32-year history of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That’s something for everybody to talk about,” McCaffery said. “It’s not something that I think about. All I’m trying to do is continue our pursuit of winning a Big Ten championship…that’s quite honestly my concern.”
Tuesday’s game is an opportunity that McCabe has been waiting for since he joined a program that went 11-20 in his freshman season and has gotten better each year.
“This is all I’ve wanted since I came here,” McCabe said.