Michigan State’s only defeat came during Denzel Valentine’s four-game absence and dropped it from the No. 1 ranking.
Coach Tom Izzo isn’t blaming that loss on missing his best player, though.
Sixteenth-ranked Iowa has been one of the hottest teams in the country, and it’ll look to snap an 18-game losing streak at the Breslin Center by beating the No. 4 Spartans for the second time in two weeks Thursday night.
Valentine underwent a minor knee procedure that kept him out of Michigan State’s 83-70 loss to the Hawkeyes (12-3, 3-0 Big Ten) on Dec. 29. The Spartans (16-1, 3-1) looked completely outmatched as Iowa won for the first time in 10 meetings, but Izzo wouldn’t use Valentine’s absence as an excuse.
“Iowa is probably playing as well as anybody,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should think that loss was because Valentine wasn’t with us.
“The energy level better be up (Thursday) because that to me was the most disappointing game I’ve played in in a couple years. Not with the loss, but with the way we played.”
Michigan State has won three straight since and had Valentine back for Sunday’s 92-65 victory at Penn State. Bryn Forbes had all 20 of his points in the first half and Valentine came off the bench to score all 10 of his in the second.
”It’s tough to throw a player like me in where we’ve been playing with the same group for four games because I do some things and people may not be ready for (them),” Valentine said. ”So we have to get used to playing with each other.”
Izzo said Valentine will be in the starting lineup against Iowa but that Eron Harris should get minutes similar to what he received while starting in place of Valentine.
Forbes has averaged 18.4 points and shot 57.1 percent from 3-point range in his last five, but he went 1 of 5 from the field and scored three points in the first meeting with the Hawkeyes. Izzo credited the defense of guard Anthony Clemmons, a Lansing native and high school teammate of Forbes and Valentine when they won back-to-back state championships.
Clemmons was a year from being born the last time Hawkeyes won at the Breslin Center in 1993. The Spartans are 8-0 at home this season while holding opponents averages of 50.9 points and 30.9 percent from the field.
“It’s a tough place to play, the crowd is always into it and they feed off the fans,” Clemmons told the team’s official website. “They’re a totally different team (from the first meeting). Denzel contributes 30 to 35 points per game with his points, assists, and pass to assists. He’s valuable to their whole offense and they feed off his confidence. Playing with him, I know how that works.”
Iowa comes into this matchup well-rested, having not played since a 77-66 win over Nebraska on Jan. 5. It has surged into the rankings with a five-game winning streak that also includes a victory at then-No. 14 Purdue on Jan. 2.
Mike Gesell, who scored a career-high 25 points against the Spartans, had 22 and 10 assists against the Cornhuskers. Jarrod Uthoff scored 25 for the second straight game after managing 10 points and battling foul trouble against Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes, though, face a completely different challenge in trying to win in East Lansing.
“You can’t get rattled,” Uthoff said. “Some things might not go your way, but you have to have the toughness to fight through them.”