East Lansing, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - Two teams that have been stumbling of late square off on Thursday night, as the 22nd-ranked Michigan State Spartans play host to the 24th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes in a Big Ten Conference clash at the Breslin Center.
Michigan State was on the short list of championship contenders when the season began, but the Spartans' uneven play down the stretch ended that conversation. They have dropped three of their last four games, including troubling losses at home to Nebraska and Illinois. This Sunday, they will finish the regular season at Ohio State.
Iowa had lost three straight games before getting back on track with an 83-76 victory over Purdue this past Sunday. The win was the 20th of the year for the Hawkeyes, who are one of five teams in the conference to have reached that many victories. However, they are just 9-7 in league play with a home game against Illinois the next and last game on the schedule.
Led by 16 points from Keith Appling, the Spartans knocked off Iowa 71-69 in overtime when these teams met earlier this season. Michigan State has won seven straight against Iowa, with three of those victories coming in the Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans lead the all-time series, 69-53.
Iowa survived quite a scare at home against Purdue. The Hawkeyes led by 13 points at halftime, but had that edge slashed to three early in the second period. However, they were able to hold off the Boilermakers thanks to an 18-4 scoring edge off turnovers, and a 14-of-20 showing from the free-throw line over the final 20 minutes.
There is no denying that Iowa can score. The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten and rank fifth nationally with an average of 83.6 ppg, while ranking second in the conference in both assists (16.3 apg) and field goal percentage (.471). They are also a dominant team on the glass, ranking fifth in the country in rebounding (41.7 rpg). Roy Devyn Marble (17.1 ppg) may not do a ton on the boards, but he is without question the leader for this team. He finished with 21 points and five assists in the win over Purdue. Aaron White (13.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is the only other double-digit scorer on the roster, and the top contributor in terms of rebounding.
Despite playing on their home floor, the Spartans just couldn't get going offensively in their loss to Illinois. Michigan State connected on only 39.1 percent of its shots from the floor while being outscored 25-9 off of turnovers. Gary Harris finished with a game-high 19 points, but he was the lone player in double figures for the losing side.
Part of the issue for the Spartans has been their inability to say healthy this season. Important contributors like Harris (17.9 ppg), Appling (13.2 ppg) and Adreian Payne (15.9, 7.6 rpg) have all missed time with injuries and have taken time to work themselves back into shape. Harris has been the most consistent recently, averaging 21.7 ppg and knocking down 15-of-32 shots from 3-point range in the last three games. Appling has had a much tougher time, with only 13 points combined during the last four games. Payne had only four points against Illinois, but had reached double figures in the previous six since returning from injury.