On Tuesday night, Big Ten’s conference play will open with a bang.
Although some believe that the Big Ten is in the midst of a down year, the opening night of conference play should deliver two thrilling matchups. To start things off, a 12-1 Purdue team will go on the road to face the defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers in Madison. It should be a great matchup between teams that appear to be heading in opposite directions.
However, it’s the late game that will attract most of the attention.
The second matchup of the day will put No. 1 Michigan State on the road to face a tough Iowa team. The Hawkeyes may not have the undefeated record or the status of the Spartans this season, but Iowa does sit at 9-3 overall and has won six of its last seven games.
All told, both teams are relevant nationally and are looking for a key victory.
Along with pitting two quality teams against one another, this game will also feature two of the better offenses in the country and some of the Big Ten’s brightest stars. In fact, Michigan State and Iowa are rated No. 8 and No. 19 nationally in offensive efficiency respectively and star players like Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris, and Jarrod Uthoff will see action.
On paper, it looks like a thriller.
Nonetheless, perhaps the most compelling aspect of this game will ride with Iowa. As mentioned, the Hawkeyes are sitting at 9-3, but this might be the team’s best opportunity to take the next step and truly assert itself into the national conversation.
During non-conference play, Iowa did put together a solid performance and scored wins against teams like Florida State, Marquette, and Wichita State. However, no opponent for Iowa was nearly as dangerous as the Spartans will be on Tuesday night. This isn’t meant to minimize Iowa’s previous opponents, but simply to acknowledge the fact that this is the team’s biggest game up to this point.
After all, there’s nothing like facing No. 1.
Along with that, this is perhaps Iowa’s best opportunity to secure a major win this season. Michigan State will be shorthanded without Denzel Valentine on Tuesday night and as such, should be a bit more vulnerable than usual. In fact, the Spartans had to use overtime to beat Oakland last week and the Golden Grizzlies are rated well below Iowa on KenPom. Plus, with Iowa’s schedule, the only comparable home game awaiting to this one will be Purdue in a few weeks, and that looks tougher on paper.
Finally, even outside of the thrilling nature of the game, the strength of Michigan State, and injury to Valentine, this is a game Iowa needs to win simply from a mental standpoint.
Maybe it’s a bit speculative to say a team needs to win to boost its mental status, but there are some solid arguments here.
To start, the Hawkeyes appear to be trending up as a team and are currently in the midst of a 6-1 run. Although momentum may be overstated in sports, continuing that hot streak matters.
Along with continuing the positive momentum, Iowa needs to show that it can knock off top teams. Earlier this season, the Hawkeyes were on the verge of knocking off a really good Iowa State team on the road, but collapsed down the stretch and lost the game.
Unfortunately, the story of the Iowa State loss has been far too familiar against the Spartans. In fact, Iowa has lost its last nine games against the Spartans, including the last three matchups at home. If the Hawkeyes want to show that they are a team and a program that can compete at the top of the Big Ten, knocking off Michigan State at some point is essential.
All told, Iowa has a lot on the line on Tuesday night.
It’s unreasonable to say this is a “must win” situation, but it’s certainly not unreasonable to think that this is Iowa’s best opportunity to prove its worth so far this year. This is a huge opportunity for not only this Iowa team to make its mark, but also for the program to show that it belongs at the top of the Big Ten.
On Tuesday night when the lights come out, fans will finally get to see what this Iowa team is made of. And given the way things have set up, this could be the start of a new trend in Iowa City.