IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa has displayed improved toughness this season. Thursday night, Michigan State showed the Hawkeyes they're not yet strong enough.
The Big Ten's poster program for rugged resolve bullied the Hawkeyes in a dominating second-half performance. Trailing by 11 at halftime, MSU hit 12 of 16 three-pointers in slamming the home team, 75-61.
For those folks who don't like math, the unranked Spartans outscored Iowa by 25 points after the intermission. It continued a disturbing trend of second-half meltdowns by the Hawkeyes this season, most memorable were collapses against in-state foes Iowa State and Northern Iowa last month.
Since scoring six points (one field goal) after halftime against UNI, Iowa appeared to have discovered some intestinal fortitude in winning three contests in a row. It knocked off a rated Ohio State team in Columbus and held off pesky Nebraska Monday night. It was the first time the Hawkeyes started 2-0 in the league since 2002-03 and Michigan State represented a chance for them to take another huge step forward.
Coach Fran McCaffery and his Iowa players met with the media on Wednesday to preview their match-up with the Spartans, who came into the game at a pedestrian (for them) 10-5 overall mark, 1-1 in the Big Ten. They spoke of the physical and mental toughness on which MSU built the conference's marquee outfit.
For the first 20 minutes Thursday, the Hawks bite was every big as their bark. They won the rebounding battle, 18-15, and outscored the opponent, 12-2, from the foul line in building a 39-28 lead. They shot 13 of 26 from the floor and held MSU to 11 of 29.
Legendary Spartan Coach Tom Izzo showed frustration with Iowa's aggressive approach and picked up a technical foul with :25 to play for halftime. It looked like the Hawkeyes would break through against a team that had beaten them in 13 of the last 14 meetings and in eight of the previous nine with McCaffery on the bench. A mostly packed house (students are on break) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena provided a hostile environment.
Iowa left the grit it used to compile its double-figure advantage in the locker room at the intermission, however. The Spartans were ready to rumble after having their manhood challenged. The Hawkeyes failed to match the intensity…again. You could feel the energy shift in the building.
It looked like Iowa might maintain its focus early in the second. Aaron White's three-pointer kept the lead at 11 with 17:33 left. Then the Hawkeyes began to fold.
Iowa's next five possessions went turnover, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed three-pointer, turnover. The Spartans capitalized with a 9-0 run to cut their deficit to 44-42 with 13:54 on the clock.
That three and a half minutes illustrated the Hawkeyes continued inability to maintain focus for an entire game. Up by 11 by virtue of pounding the ball inside and getting to the free throw line, aka being tougher, they wilted into shooting jumpers and being careless with the ball. And, then, they let offensive inefficiencies poison their play in the other end of the court.
"We really struggled offensively and it affected everything that we did from that point forward," McCaffery said.
The coach was screaming at the players on the bench that they needed to know personnel. He was referring to the Spartans' three-point shooters, namely Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. They'd combined for 69 triples coming into the night. The coach's pleas fell on deaf ears.
Trice sank three treys and another long jumper in just under three minutes to help his team to a 58-51 lead with 7:57 on the clock. Valentine finished things off with a pair of threes during the next four-and-a-half-minute segment when the visitors built a 72-55 advantage.
MSU won the second-half rebounding competition, 20-11, and shot an astonishing 8 of 9 from behind the arc. Shooters were hot but they received open looks.
"We got a little shellshocked when they were hitting shots," McCaffery said.
When you're offense deficiencies affect your defense, it shows a lack of mental toughness. That's a pattern for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (11-5, 2-1) missed seven of 10 free throw attempts in the second half. They shot 2 of 12 on three-pointers for the game, including 1 of 7 after the intermission.
Gabe Olaseni (18 points, 8-9 FTs) and Mike Gesell (10 points, three assists) were bright spots on offense for Iowa. Standout forwards Jarrod Uthoff (6-16 FGs, 0-4 from three, 10 points) and White (2-4, eight points) were outplayed by Valentine and Branden Dawson, who combined for 32 points and 24 rebounds.
Instead of moving into a first-place tie with Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes drop behind Michigan State based on this lone head-to-head match-up this season. They're faced with playing three of their next four games on the road, including one in Madison. Their home game is against revenge-minded Ohio State.
Iowa can't continue to fold up like it did Thursday and had in losses to ISU, UNI and Texas. Those teams are good, yes, but the Hawkeyes must start beating schools like that if they want to reach their second NCAA Tournament in a row.
"Any team that wants to be a championship team, you got to be consistent," McCaffery said. "It's got to be consistency of effort, consistency of concentration, consistency of execution. If you do those things, you can survive missed shots."
Said Izzo: "To beat a good team on the road after being down 11 shows good character in our team but we have a long way to go as far as being consistent."
It was easy to tell Thursday whose road to consistency is longer and, maybe, whose bar is higher.