The Big Ten regular-season title is now out of reach for Michigan State, but with three losses in four games, coach Tom Izzo is worried about fundamental issues such as effort rather than championships or conference tournament seeding.
The 22nd-ranked Spartans will try to end their first losing streak of the season and avoid their first three-game skid at the Breslin Center since 1996-97 on Thursday night when they go for their 18th straight home win over No. 24 Iowa.
After Saturday's 53-46 home loss to Illinois, Izzo said Michigan State (22-7, 11-5), slowed by injuries throughout the season, lacked energy en route to posting its season-low offensive output.
"This team has been through a lot, but I didn't see this coming," said Izzo, who started his 15th different lineup. "There's no excuse for that. We practiced harder than they played. Like I said, I'll throw myself under the bus - that's inexcusable, ridiculous. There are just too many things these guys have had to go through, so maybe a slap in the face is good for us."
The Hawkeyes (20-9, 9-7), meanwhile, ended a three-game skid Sunday with an 83-76 home victory over Purdue. That game came after road losses to Minnesota and Purdue, and now Iowa visits a venue where they've dropped 17 in a row since an overtime win Jan. 28, 1993.
While it's been 17 years since Michigan State has lost three straight at home, Izzo's club is also trying to avoid losing three in a row overall and is 4-6 over the past six weeks.
Izzo said Keith Appling's wrist injury continues to restrict the senior guard, though the Spartans continued to get healthier against the Fighting Illini with Branden Dawson's return from a broken hand. The 6-foot-6 junior played for the first time since Jan. 21 while forward Adreian Payne, the team's second-leading scorer, has been back for nearly a month after being out with a right foot sprain.
"When you get those guys back initially, there's a little bit of an adjustment period and I think you've seen that with them," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "But ultimately they are better. You're talking about, you know, a couple of the premiere players in our league."
Payne has averaged 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in seven games back, but he matched a season low with four points against Illinois and said it's now time to hit the reset button.
"We've got to start over," Payne said. "We've got to focus on what we can control and use the past to motivate us."
One constant for the Spartans has been sophomore Gary Harris, who leads the team with 17.9 points per game. He had 19 against Illinois and has averaged 20.8 in the last four games.
He'll try to help them beat the Hawkeyes for the eighth straight time overall.
"They are just good," McCaffery said. "I don't think there's anything specific that you're going to say that they have done or we haven't done. You've just got to give them credit."
Iowa let a four-point halftime lead slip away Jan. 28 in a 71-69 overtime loss to Michigan State, which was missing Payne and Dawson. It was the third straight meeting determined by one possession.
Roy Devyn Marble (17.1 points per game) led all scorers with 21 points while Appling had 16.
Marble also had 21 in the win over the Boilermakers, his fourth straight games with 20 points or more.
"He's carrying this team. His consistency is amazing at both ends of the floor. He doesn't rattle," McCaffery said. "I think what you're seeing is a guy that is playing with a great level of confidence due to the fact that he's taking full advantage of his experience."
Michigan State is 3-2 against ranked opponents this season while Iowa is 2-5.