The Big Ten’s early portion of the conference schedule continued on Monday night as Michigan State hosted Iowa in the evening’s most competitive contest. Although the Hawkeyes have looked like a potentially resurgent bunch this season as the No. 18 team in the country, it was No. 10 Michigan State who dominated this one with a 90-68 win.
Here are three takeaways from this one.
1. Michigan State can still beat solid competition with an off-night from Joshua Langford
When the Spartans want to be in the conversation with the best teams in America, it is usually because junior guard Joshua Langford is playing at a high level. Earlier this season, Langford was our CBT Player of the Week after a dominant stretch against Texas.
Then Langford wasn’t the same against Louisville when Michigan State suffered an upset road loss last week. So monitoring which version of Langford might show up against a top-20 team like Iowa was something to keep an eye on.
Thankfully for Michigan State, Langford wasn’t at his best (14 points, 5-for-13 shooting) but the Spartans still had a blowout win over a likely NCAA tournament team. Relying on physicality, toughness and rugged interior play, Michigan State did a great job of playing through junior big man Nick Ward (26 points, nine rebounds, 10-for-10 shooting) and sophomore reserve big man Xavier Tillman (14 points, eight rebounds) while senior forward Kenny Goins (19 points, 14 rebounds) had a monster outing doing more cleanup work.
The combination of Ward, Goins and Tillman were able to do whatever they wanted thanks to their physicality and a solid effort from junior point guard Cassius Winston (eight points, 12 assists) and his dribble penetration. Michigan State is still going to need Langford to play at a high level if they want to make a Final Four run later this season. But at least they can take comfort in knowing that they can win in other ways if other parts step up.
2. Iowa’s concerns about defense and toughness are back
Iowa’s defense and ability to play tough were the major question marks for them entering this season. Everyone knew the Hawkeyes would be able to put up points. But could Fran McCaffery’s team step up and get more stops to compete with the Big Ten’s best?
Based on Monday night’s results in East Lansing, things aren’t looking very good at the moment for Iowa’s interior defense. While the Hawkeyes deserve some credit for early-season wins over Oregon and UConn in New York, it’s clear that a familiar Big Ten opponent like Michigan State still felt they could exploit the Hawkeyes severely on the interior.
Iowa looked completely helpless trying to stop bruising big men like Ward and Tillman. Goins had more energy than anyone on the glass. The physicality of Michigan State in general seemed to bother the Hawkeyes quite a bit. Iowa only shot 31 percent (21-for-64) from the field as they struggled to get a consistent go-to scorer until the game was well out of reach. Big men like Tyler Cook (15 points) and Luka Garza (seven points, 1-for-10 shooting) were outplayed by their Michigan State counterparts.
Now off to an 0-2 start in conference play, Iowa quickly needs to rectify its defensive issues inside or risk having a lot of trouble competing in the Big Ten this season. The talent is more than there for Iowa to run with any team in the conference but Monday night was not a great sign.
3. Michigan State’s role players are getting more comfortable
We knew that the Spartans would rely on the junior trio of Ward, Winston and Langford for much of their offensive production this season. While that will remain the case for the better part of this season, Michigan State has to be thrilled with how its role players stepped up against Iowa.
Goins had a big double-double while Tillman’s activity nearly gave him a double-double of his own. Since Ward requires potential double-teams whenever he catches the ball, it means Goins will have opportunities on the glass and around the basket.
Even playing without Matt McQuaid, Michigan State earned solid minutes from Kyle Ahrens, as his defensive intensity was helpful in the first half. Freshman Aaron Henry also showed off his athleticism in some minutes off the bench as he provided effort on defense and a memorable fast-break dunk off a pass from Cassius Winston.
Again, Michigan State needs a star like Langford or Ward to step up on most nights to run with the best teams. But if the teams role players continue to step up and play like this then Michigan State’s main trio won’t face nearly as much pressure to produce every single game.