No matchup engendered skepticism of Iowa quite like its 90-68 loss at Michigan State in early December.
The Hawkeyes collapsed late in the first half, allowing the Spartans to reel off a staggering 40-11 run in a drubbing that felt like so many of the ones Iowa suffered through a year ago. The 19th-ranked Hawkeyes have looked like a different team of late — and they'd like nothing more than to prove it when they host the sixth-ranked Spartans (17-2, 8-0) on Thursday night.
Iowa (16-3, 5-3) has won five straight, including a 95-71 blowout of Illinois on Sunday, after starting 0-3 in the Big Ten.
"We're just further along in the process, that's all," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
It's been a long process though. Iowa essentially brought back its entire team from 2017-18, the one that finished a dismal 14-19. By far the biggest change was adding freshman Joe Wieskamp, who has lived up to expectations.
Wieskamp, who broke the state's career scoring record while at Muscatine (Iowa) High, has cracked double figures in each of his last five games. It's a stretch that culminated in one of the best performances at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in recent memory against the Illini.
Wieskamp hit all eight shots he took, finished 6 of 6 on 3-pointers and tied a career high with 24 points. Wieskamp joined Nik Stauskas of Michigan and D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State — both now in the NBA — as the only Big Ten freshmen who've gone 6 of 6 or better beyond the arc in the past 10 seasons.
"He might blow a game open with his 3-point shot. It might be drives to the basket," McCaffery said of Wieskamp. "He gives you tough baskets, but he also can move his feet laterally and defend. He rebounds. He rebounds in traffic. He has a keen understanding of time and score and what we need and what we don't need. He doesn't do anything crazy ever."
Wieskamp left the last meeting with the Spartans with a sprained ankle, a familiar injury for McCaffery's rotation this season.
Iowa is finally fully healthy, and that's been as big of a reason for their recent success as anything else. But they'll still underdogs against the Spartans. Michigan State enters Thursday's game with a 12-game winning streak and a 20-game run in league games dating to last season.
The Spartans lead the Big Ten in scoring (83.8 points a game), scoring margin (plus-17.8) and rebounding margin (plus-11.1). They also have talented junior forward Nick Ward, who torched the Hawkeyes for 23 points on 10 of 10 shooting last month.
"When he's in there, he's sprinting and they go to him," McCaffery said of Ward. "So if you're jogging and you're not ready, he's going to kill you. It's not complicated.