Big Ten leader Michigan State showed the difference between being great and pretty good

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Iowa players huddle on the court against Michigan State. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Michigan State men’s basketball team delivered a sobering message on Thursday.

Its 82-67 victory over what had been a surging Iowa team showed that the Hawkeyes still are very much a work in progress heading into Sunday's game at Minnesota.

The Spartans turned a highly competitive game into a mismatch in the second half by outscoring Iowa 24-2 during about a six-minute stretch. Iowa couldn’t make a shot and Michigan State couldn’t miss a shot, or so it seemed.

It was as if the Spartans said, hey, enough with this. You aren’t good enough to beat us, and now it's time for us to assert our will  in your house and in front of your fans.

And they certainly did by outscoring Iowa 51-32 in the second half.

"There still is a lot we can learn from this game," said Iowa forward Tyler Cook. "It's not like we played forty bad minutes. We really only played like eight to nine bad minutes. So there still is a lot that we can learn and a lot that we can get better from." 

This isn’t one of Tom Izzo’s most talented teams at Michigan State, but it might be one of his best teams because it has a wealth of experience and because it has maybe the top point guard in the Big Ten in junior Cassius Winston.

Thursday’s game was a matchup between a great team and a good team, and it unfolded as you would expect with greatness prevailing.

Iowa has achieved enough this season to be considered a good team, or at least pretty good, with records of 16-4 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten.

Iowa just isn’t in Michigan State’s class, and Thursday’s game served as a painful reminder.

But Iowa still has plenty of opportunities for success with 11 conference games remaining. It isn't even the halfway point of the 20-game conference grind, so this Iowa team still is defining itself.

The Hawkeyes had won their previous five game before getting shellacked by the Spartans.

And while there is no such thing as a bad five-game winning streak, some are better than others.

Iowa’s five-game winning streak came against Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois. Those teams had a combined record of 11-32 in the Big Ten as of Saturday.

Iowa’s four losses in the Big Ten came against against Michigan State twice and against Wisconsin and Purdue, three teams with a combined record of 21-5 in the Big Ten as of Saturday.

So it seems pretty clear at this point that the next step for Iowa is learning how to beat teams in the upper half of the conference.

Minnesota is a borderline upper-division team, but a victory in Minneapolis is always a worthy accomplishment.

Iowa will have that opportunity on Sunday against a Minnesota team that is as inconsistent as it is talented with records of 13-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten under head coach Richard Pitino.

The Gophers have size, athleticism and experience, and yet, they’re unpredictable.

The challenge for Iowa is to not let the Michigan State loss linger. But that won’t be easy with Iowa’s next three games at Minnesota on Sunday, at home against Michigan on Feb. 1 and at Indiana on Feb. 7.

“You know, there were a lot of good things that happened to our team tonight, and you can’t lose sight of that because you get beat,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Thursday’s loss. “There was a stretch in the game where it got away from us.”

One thing that seems certain is that McCaffery won’t let the loss linger.

He is similar to Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz in that he never gets too high after a win or too low after a loss.

McCaffery was obviously upset after Thursday’s loss to Michigan State, but he won’t dwell on it because that accomplishes nothing.

He is a master at moving on, and that’s exactly what Iowa has to do, move on from Thursday’s beat-down and use it as motivation to keep improving.

The current Iowa team is well on its way to showing that last season’s stunning decline was a fluke or an aberration.

But it also has a ways to go to show that it’s a Big Ten contender.

Iowa could still make the NCAA Tournament without being a Big Ten contender.

And that is usually what happens with Iowa.

The Big Ten Conference is expected to have at least seven or eight teams make the NCAA Tournament, and Iowa just has to make sure that it’s one of those teams.

To make it back to the NCAA Tournament after having finished 14-19 last season would be enough to call this season a success.

A spot in the National Invitation Tournament would certainly be a step up from last season, but would also bring disappointment because it would mean that Iowa had failed to make the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season under a ninth-year head coach.

But this is not the time to worry about the big picture. This is the time to just keep grinding.

All that matters right now is Sunday’s game at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Iowa has enough firepower and experience to defeat the Gophers, even on the road, whereas that wasn't the case against Michigan State.

Iowa and Michigan State could play 10 times and the Spartans probably would win eight or nine times just because they're better.

Minnesota, on the other hand, has no big advantage over Iowa except for playing at home.

The Gophers do have one of the Big Ten's top rebounders in senior forward Jordan Murphy, but he'll have his hands full with the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cook in the low post.

Iowa already has won twice on the road in the Big Ten this season with victories at Northwestern and Penn State.

To win a third road game in conference play would show that Iowa has moved on from the Michigan State mauling.