The good news for people looking to watch some Big Ten basketball tonight is you won't have to struggle over which game to watch. There may only be one contest tonight, but it should definitely be a good one. The Iowa Hawkeyes, who are ranked 16th and have won five straight, will try to topple the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans on the road. Let's take a look at the matchup:
Game of the Night: Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Michigan State Spartans (7:00 P.M. ET | ESPN)
This is a good matchup between two teams that could both being playing late into the Spring. Iowa hasn't lost since its gut-wrenching 83-82 defeat to rival Iowa State on Dec. 10, and have yet to lose a game in conference play. One of those conference wins, which took place Dec. 29, came against the same Michigan State team it's playing tonight. Nobody else has beaten the Spartans this season, and a second victory over them would be huge for Iowa and Fran McCaffery.
But while their previous win over the Spartans was indeed impressive, the Hawkeyes will be facing a different Michigan State team this time around. That's because Tom Izzo's crew has just gotten back star senior Denzel Valentine, who missed four straight games with a knee injury. Honestly, the fact that Michigan State managed to go 3-1 in Valentine's absence was somewhat impressive as they are still in excellent shape with a 16-1 record.
So how effective will Valentine be against the Hawkeyes? It's hard to say. It was a great sign that he managed to play 23 minutes in the Spartans 92-65 win over Penn State on Sunday and finish with 10 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Still, he went just 4-of-11 from the field and looked rusty at times, which was obviously to be expected.
The Spartans will be hoping to get a much bigger contribution on Thursday from Valentine, who is easily one of the best players in the country and is averaging 17.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Eron Harris (21 points) and Matt Costello (17 points, 7 rebounds) both had big games last time and the Spartans will still need either one of them or someone else to compliment Valentine on Thursday.
But Michigan State's offense wasn't the issue last time. They problem was they struggled defensively and allowed Iowa to score 83 points and shoot 46 percent from three. Having Valentine back should help in that area too, but the Spartans will definitely have to do a better job guarding point guard Mike Gessell. The senior torched the Spartans last time, scoring 25 points and getting to the line at will. While Gesell doesn't typically score like that (9.9 points per game) the Spartans were fortunate that Iowa's leading scorer, Jarrod Uthoff, was in foul trouble early and finished with just 10 points. That isn't likely to happen again, so the Spartans will need to make sure guys like Gessell and Peter Jok (19 points last time) don't take over.
Overall, this should be a very good game that will tell us a lot about the balance of power in the Big Ten. A win by the Spartans will prove that last time was just one letdown game without their star player, while the Hawkeyes can make a huge statement by beating a top-five team twice. You don't want to miss this one.