Although its atop the Big Ten, Michigan State has struggled to play at its full potential from game to game - and even from half to half. With four regular season games remaining, coach Tom Izzo knows his squad needs to start consistently playing like a championship-caliber team.
The ninth-ranked Spartans look to build off a comeback victory and move closer to their first Big Ten title in eight years when they host Iowa on Wednesday night.
Michigan State (21-5, 11-3) has a one-game lead over No. 16 Purdue and a 1 1/2-game advantage over 20th-ranked Illinois, but its journey to the top has been unusual.
The Spartans, who were 35-1 at the Breslin Center over the past two seasons, have home defeats to Northwestern and Penn State and suffered a 72-54 loss at Purdue last Tuesday.
Michigan State bounced back from that loss with Sunday’s 61-50 win over Wisconsin. The Spartans fell behind 41-29 with 12:31 remaining before closing the game on a 32-9 run.
“Focus is going to be a key to finishing the year,” Izzo said. “Usually the difference between doing good things and doing great things is who can keep their team focused.”
Michigan State, which has been without a Big Ten title since winning the last of four straight in 2001, still plays Illinois and Indiana on the road before closing the season at home against the Boilermakers. First, though, the Spartans have to make sure they don’t overlook the 10th-place Hawkeyes (14-13, 4-10), who are coming off a comeback win of their own.
“It’s the perfect time of year to see if we’re growing up enough to handle this in a business-type approach,” Izzo said.
Izzo is hoping forward Raymar Morgan and backup point guard Korie Lucious will be closer to full strength Wednesday.
Morgan has come off the bench in each of Michigan State’s last two games after missing the previous three because of various illnesses.
Lucious has been suffering from flu-like symptoms, forcing starter Kalin Lucas to play extended minutes. Lucas had 17 points in 34 minutes Sunday and scored 24 in Michigan State’s 71-56 victory over Iowa on Jan. 29.
The Spartans have won three of four over the Hawkeyes, and 13 straight in the series at the Breslin Center since 1993.
Michigan State, which has outscored Iowa by an average of 25.3 points in the last three in East Lansing, is holding opponents to 48.0 points on 30.3 percent shooting in three home games this month.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have lost nine straight away from Iowa City since defeating The Citadel 70-48 in their first road game of the season.
Banged-up Iowa defeated Michigan 70-60 in overtime Sunday after trailing by four points with less than a minute remaining in regulation.
Jake Kelly led the way for the Hawkeyes, scoring nine of the team’s 14 points in the extra session. He established career highs with 23 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in 45 minutes.
Kelly wasn’t the only Hawkeye to play the entire game, as Matt Gatens, Devan Bawinkel and Aaron Fuller also played the full 45 minutes for short-handed Iowa.
“We’re down to the end. They’re young. They’re kids,” Hawkeyes coach Todd Lickliter said.
Kelly has started the last three games because of injuries to other players, and is averaging 19.7 points - 9.4 more than his season average - on 53.5 percent shooting in those contests.
The Hawkeyes have not won back-to-back Big Ten contests since winning three in a row from Jan. 31-Feb. 7, 2007.