INDIANAPOLIS - Michigan State made it look easy. When you're as good as the Spartans, blowout wins can look effortless.
Iowa didn't play well Friday afternoon here at the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes said as much after the 92-75 loss. But they weren't awful and their effort was there.
All things being equal, the Spartans are just that much better than Iowa at this stage. It serves as a reminder that things are getting better but there's a lot of work to do for the players and Fran McCaffery if Iowa wants to be among the conference's elite.
No. 8 Iowa (17-16) stood toe to toe with the top-seeded Spartans for the first nine minutes of the game. A Devyn Marble jumper tied the score at 22-22 about midway through the first half.
During the next eight minutes, MSU overpowered the Hawkeyes with a noticeable height advantage inside and guards that were going around defenders. The Spartans outscored Iowa 27-9 in that span. The underdogs would not recover.
"I don't think it was anybody not playing hard," Iowa sophomore Melsahn Basabe said. "They're ahead of us right now (as a program). I still have two years left and it should be something to look forward to, redeeming ourselves. They were the better team today. You've got give it to them."
MSU post players Draymond Green (21 points, 10 rebounds), Andreian Payne (16, 7) and Derrick Nix (9,4) combined for 46 points and 21 rebounds. The majority of the damage came on layups and dunks.
"They just have so much size and skill," said Iowa Center Zach McCabe, who scored 13 and grabbed six boards. "Green goes out (of the game) and you still have to deal with Nix and Payne. They're a great all-around team. They're going to be hard to beat in the NCAA Tournament."
Once the inside was established, the Spartan big men then kicked the ball out to their guards when Iowa's backcourt would drop down to double the post. MSU shot 8 of 18 (44.4 percent) from beyond the arc. The favorite connected on 32-55 (58.2 percent) attempts from the floor overall.
"They're very good," Hawkeye senior Bryce Cartwright said. "They showed today that if you don't have the size to match up with them, they can be a difficult match-up."
As if MSU's offensive exploits weren't enough, it also was determined not to let Iowa star Matt Gatens beat them from long range or otherwise. The Hawkeye senior had three points at the half on free throws and didn't score his first field goal until 8:45 remained in the contest. That would be his only hoop as he finished with 10 points courtesy of hitting all seven of his free throw attempts.
"It looked like we might have a chance on paper, but they came ready," Gatens said of Michigan State.
The Spartans built their lead to 28 points at one point, but Iowa never packed it in. The Hawkeyes fought to the final buzzer, cutting 11 points off of that deficit by the end.
"There's a lot of fight in us," Marble said. "We're not the most talented team every time we take the floor. We know as individuals it's going to take a team. From Matt on down to Gabe (Olaseni), we understand our roles."
The Hawkeyes won four Big Ten games last season, McCaffery's first as their head coach. With Thursday's tournament win against Illinois, Iowa tallied nine victories in the league in Year 2.
"We could have won two, three, four more this year," Basabe said. "But to take steps to be a really good team, we have to be more consistent."
Iowa signed five recruits in November. Center Adam Woodbury was ranked as a Top 50 player nationally and point guard Mike Gesell was rated in the Top 100.
The Hawkeyes enter into phase three of McCaffery's rebuilding project with more weapons, though the loss of Gatens and Cartwright could sting. And, really, it's hard to say how far away is Iowa from powers like the Spartans and Ohio State.
"They've had tradition for years," Gatens said. "They've had solid coaches. They have consistency.
"I'm excited about (McCaffery). I think he'll be here for a while. They'll have to continue to recruit well and get guys who take pride in wearing the Iowa uniform."
If we keep things in perspective, it's clear the program took a step forward this season. Iowa swept rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota and beat Top 25 teams in Indiana and Michigan.
"I'm confident that it's going in the right direction," Gatens said. "Maybe next year they can continue to grow and take that next step. That's what it's all about."