The Spartans recovered from a down year to claim a portion of the Big Ten title
#1 Michigan State (-11) vs. #8 Iowa
On January 10th, Iowa, finished a two-game stretch in which they lost to the top of the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan State, by a combined 63 points. The Spartans shot 62% from the floor, 56% from three, and rebounded a whopping 43% of their missed shots. Senior captain Matt Gatens only took nine shots, and the Hawkeyes allowed the Spartans’ struggling point-guard, Keith Appling, to wrack up 9 assists to 0 turnovers. It was as thorough a whipping as you can imagine.
Since then, the Hawkeyes, thought by many to be the dregs of the conference, have gone 7-7 in Big 10 play, after essentially going .500 to that point, largely against an uninspiring out-of-conference slate. They defeated top-20 outfits Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana at home during the run, led by Gatens, who has scored 18.2 points per game on 51.2% shooting (50.5% from three) since the loss at the Breslin Center. This isn’t quite a tournament-caliber team, but they’re much closer than you think.
That being said, there’s virtually nothing they do better than the Spartans, with the exception of protecting the basketball. The Hawkeyes are a solid offensive team, above-average in all four factors, but the Spartans are an elite defensive club, phenomenal in essentially every metric. The number, overwhelmingly, suggest this should be a Spartan walk.
But lets not move on quite so fast, shall we? While the Hawkeyes aren’t particularly adept at forcing turnovers as a whole (they are precisely average), they do excel at generating steals – leading the Big Ten in the category, with Roy Devin Marble the chief thief, with virtually every player on the roster sporting a strong rate. Iowa is a high-pressure defense that tries to force the tempo, and run off of steals as much as possible – they’re the highest tempo team in the conference. On the other end, Michigan State’s point guard, Keith Appling, is extremely turnover prone, and Travis Trice, the backup, is hobbled. If Iowa is going to win this game, they’ll need to force Appling into errors, and be ready to run immediately.
Further compounding the Spartan woes is the loss of Branden Dawson, lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Dawson drew the assignment on Gatens in the first game, and was largely responsible for holding him in check – the Spartans will need former walk-on Austin Thornton to be as effective.
We’re not predicting a Hawkeye victory here – that seems exceedingly unlikely, given the talent disparity. However – keep an eye out for Marble and the Hawkeyes’ press – if Appling looks uncomfortable, this could be a much tighter game than the Spartans want. With the spread at a whopping eleven points, it looks as if the money still thinks this is a three-win Hawkeye team. The pick is the Hawkeyes, and the points.
Ryan Evans blocks lots of shots, and not just with his hi-top fade
#4 Wisconsin (#14) vs. #5 Indiana (#15)
Without a doubt, this is the main event of Friday’s games – two teams that finished next to each other in the conference and national standings, that played once, with the home team (Wisconsin) walking away with a seven-point win. This match-up is as close to a wash as can possibly be imagined. Even Ken Pomeroy has this game as a head-scratcher.
National tempo-free offensive and defensive rankings aside, these teams are essentially polar opposites – Indiana sports the third best offense in the nation while Wisconsin boasts the third-best defense in the nation. Indiana’s offense is fueled by shooting (8th in the nation) and getting to the line (10th in the nation), while Wisconsin’s defense thrives on forcing poor shooting (1st in the nation), and not fouling (30th in the nation). Who will thrive? It’s anyone’s best guess.
If we’re content to call the irresistible force vs. the unmovable object a wash, the answer most likely lies in the other matchup – Wisconsin’s offense versus Indiana’s defense. Both units, on the national level are respectable, according to tempo-free stats, but somewhat mediocre when taken in context of their peers – both Wisconsin’s offense and Indiana’s defense were 6th in the conference. Indiana’s defense doesn’t do any one thing particularly well or poorly – they’re a little above average at everything. Wisconsin, on the other hand, can’t get to the line or offensive rebound – they simply never turn the ball over. In other words, they aren’t that good, they just throw away opportunities.
The one player that distinguishes himself in this matchup, oddly, isn’t Jordan Taylor this year, who has roundly struggled on the offensive side. Rather, it’s Victor Olapido – a rangy athlete and dangerous on-ball defender. He won’t necessarily be a difference-maker in this match-up, as the Badgers are extremely sound with the ball regardless of competition, but he’s the only player that seems likely to make a difference.
When the teams play to their strength, see if the Hoosier’s dispersed attack can keep Ryan Evans honest on defense. A devastating help defender, Evans has driven the Badger defensive success, but if Christian Watford can shoot from outside well enough from his power forward spot to keep Evans away from the rim, much of his efficacy will be diminished.
At the end of the day, this game is a coinflip, and I’d likely recommend supporting whichever team is getting points- Wisconsin, with 1.5. But even that’s incredibly thin. It’s tempting to go with the hotter team, but both teams won their last three Big Ten teams, and both beat a conference co-champion in the process. I suppose Indiana’s win’s were a bit more convincing, but the loss of Verdell Jones III likely blunts any perceived momentum edge you’d want to give them, as does the fact that they’re playing a fresh Wisconsin team a day after dispatching Penn State. This is a tossup in every meaning of the word – perhaps it’s best to stay away. If you need to wager, take the Badgers, but this is a tepid recommendation at best.