Jan. 27, 2014
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa --No one is calling it beginner's luck, but Fran McCaffery and the University of Iowa men's basketball team didn't wait to live a charmed life in its series against Michigan State.
McCaffery's first season (2010-11) produced 11 wins, four coming against Big Ten Conference opponents. The first time the Hawkeyes played Michigan State in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa came away with a 20-point win. The stakes are a bit higher Tuesday when the teams meet again on Mediacom Court.
Michigan State (18-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten), ranked sixth in the country by The Associated Press, has won the last six against the No. 15 Hawkeyes (16-4, 5-2). Three of those results have come by five points or less.
With both teams within two games of the lead in the toughest conference in the land, McCaffery says there is a simple solution to winning a league championship: beat the Spartans or else.
"Every coach in this league understands if you're going to win a championship, you've got to go through Michigan State," McCaffery said Monday at a news conference inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Michigan is on top of the Big Ten standings at 7-0, followed by Michigan State (7-1) and the Hawkeyes (5-2). Iowa has won 20 consecutive games at home, but McCaffery says that streak is for others to talk about.
"All I'm trying to do is continue our pursuit of winning a Big Ten championship. We're playing a team that's above us, that was ranked No. 1 in preseason, and a team that has our full attention. That's my concern."
UI head basketball coach
With 11 regular-season conference games left on the schedule, McCaffery will retain his typical "consistent and business-like" approach in preparing for Michigan State. Some are calling this the biggest game the UI program has been involved in for nearly a decade.
There have been nine times this season where the Hawkeyes have committed 10-or-fewer turnovers. It is no coincidence that they are 8-1 in those games. McCaffery said that is key to defeating the Spartans.
"Can't turn the ball over, not against this team," he said.
Ten Iowa players saw at least 10 minutes of playing time during the Hawkeyes' most recent 76-50 win at Northwestern on Jan. 25. That is the first time that has happened since the Big Ten opener against Nebraska on Dec. 31. McCaffery said that although an 11-man rotation is hard to implement at this stage of the season, he wants to get freshman guard Peter Jok more court time.
"He deserves to be in there," McCaffery said of Jok. "It has been harder to get 11 in. Not that we didn't anticipate that that would be difficult; it's so much easier with 10. But (we're) thrilled with Zach McCabe and how he's played, (Gabriel) Olaseni has been phenomenal, and (Melsahn) Basabe is playing very well. The beauty of it is we can absorb a couple of those guys having an off day and still have six, seven, sometimes eight, other guys playing really well."
Tuesday will mark Iowa's fourth game in 10 days, a fact that does not worry McCaffery. He said the team's health -- and legs -- are fine because of sensible practices.
"They're in a good place," McCaffery said.
Tuesday's game will tip off at 6:05 p.m. (CT) and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. It is the sixth sellout (15,400) of the season for the Hawkeyes. By contrast, when Iowa defeated the Spartans on Feb. 2, 2011, there were 12,158 in attendance, despite freezing temperatures and two feet of snow. McCaffery has not had time to revel in the programs momentum and popularity in those three seasons.
"I probably will later, not now," he said. "We're too focused on work. It's great that the building is filled and it's going to be an unbelievable atmosphere, but my job is to get those guys ready to play."