So what's happened to Michigan State?Well, first and foremost they played a very good Iowa team last night and lost, 66-54. Steve Alford's team has now put together four consecutive games, home and away, where their defense has been better than the best in the Big Ten: Illinois and Wisconsin have each allowed opponents 0.94 points per possession in Big Ten play. No Iowa opponent has reached that figure in the past four games. (True, Iowa lost one of those games, to Northwestern.) The Hawks have solidified their identity as a tough team that makes you take tough shots and then cleans up your miss on the defensive glass. That's what happened to Michigan State last night.As to what's happened to the Spartans this year, let's preface any critique with an acknowledgment that the tough part is over for Tom Izzo's team. State may stand at just 6-5 in the conference but they've also played seven road games. With a remaining schedule that features four home games and a visit to, um, tumultuous Indiana, MSU could conceivably win out and finish 11-5.Still, there was a time not very long ago when casting 11-5 as the best-case scenario for the Spartans would have been unthinkable. What's changed? Perhaps it's that Michigan State's potentially explosive offense has not yet reached its potential.It is said the book on State is clear. When the Spartans take possession of the ball, whether off a made FG by the opposing team or a defensive rebound, find Drew Neitzel immediately and stop his progress. Keep the ball from flying up the court. Then, once you've turned the possession into a half-court exercise, pack it in: the Spartans are a surprisingly bad outside shooting team (32.4 3FG pct. in-conference as of this morning).All true enough. But of course the Spartans were a surprisingly bad outside shooting team last year, too (32.9 3FG pct. in-conference), and all they did was go to the Final Four. What's the difference between last year's bad outside shooting team (1.13 points per possession in-conference) and this year's (1.03 PPP as of this morning)?I think the biggest single difference is the Spartans' surprisingly ordinary offensive rebounding. State has gone from first (last year) to fifth in this category and it has had a domino effect. Fewer offensive boards means fewer easy putbacks, as reflected in MSU's significantly lower 2FG pct. (vs. last year) and noticeably lower effective FG percentage (vs. last year).One of the most oft-heard sound bites regarding Tom Izzo's teams is that they "get better as the year goes on." (And, to be sure, Izzo's sparkling W-L record in NCAA tournament play would seem to support the sound bite.) If this is to be the case this year, the area that needs to get better is State's work on the offensive glass.And soon.Iowa-MSU linksSee canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska for the definitive game recap, including the backstory on why that second-half dunk and bicep-flexing by Doug Thomas was so popular with the Hawkeye fans (and, for that matter, with Thomas himself, who termed the play "phenomenal")....Iowa City Press-Citizen columnist Pat Harty says Steve Alford has "impeccable timing. He led Iowa to the 2001 Big Ten tournament title in the same season that Bob Knight was fired at Indiana. Alford used that leverage to get a huge and lengthy contract at Iowa. He now has Iowa in position to win its first Big Ten title since the 1978-79 season, whereas the situation with Mike Davis at Indiana appears to be unraveling." For his part Alford says this year marks a welcome contrast to past Februarys: "Instead of fighting like crazy to get ourselves into the postseason, our guys realize they are playing for something special--the conference championship in the best league in the country."...Lansing State Journal columnist Todd Schulz wonders when Mo Ager is going to come out of his slump (3-for-11 last night). Tom Izzo is both frustrated with is team's turnovers and "disappointed that right now we just can't seem to find the basket....I'm sure we've lost some confidence." Ager says his team knows they no longer control their fate in the conference race: "Destiny isn't really in our hands anymore. All we can do is win our games and hope they lose." (Box score.)In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Penn State plays Indiana tonight in State College. Oracular Hoosier observer Terry Hutchens says "if ever a game fell into the 'must-win' category, this is it." Mike Davis, after missing Saturday's game against Iowa with the flu, has made the trip to State College amid widespread speculation that his days as the Hoosiers' coach are numbered. Nittany Lion coach Ed DeChellis says he sympathizes with Davis's plight: "They went to the Final Four (four) years ago and have done some great things there. But everybody can't be happy all the time, and we as coaches take the heat for it, whether it's just or unjust, and that's part of the profession."Wisconsin plays Ohio State in Madison tonight. Matt Sylvester says his team's improved as it's grown older: "We really have been around the block."...Badger assistant Greg Gard says he's less worried about OSU's offense than he is about Wisconsin's: "I think we've always defended fairly well, it's just on the other end we had a hard time scoring at times and shooting a great percentage. So it makes the world a much easier place, a much happier place if the ball goes in on the offensive end and it helps your defense." Kammron Taylor agrees and has been working on his shooting stroke....BONUS late-breaking news on ancient history! Former Buckeye coach Jim O'Brien has won his lawsuit against Ohio State University. Ohio Court of Claims Judge Joseph T. Clark ruled this morning that O'Brien was indeed fired improperly by the University.Illinois plays Northwestern tonight in Champaign. Bruce Weber says he hopes he sees a different Illini team than the one that played Sunday in Columbus: "Did we battle them with the energy I hoped? No. Did they make some shots that were ungodly? Yes." Weber's also worried about Dee Brown: "Dee's a little worn down....He’s got to push (the ball) again." Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says Brown and James Augustine are feeling the pressure that comes from being seniors. (Maybe. And yet the list of Wooden Award nominees holds no shortage of seniors performing well.) Mohamed Hachad says his team can win tonight: "Now that they've lost a couple of games we have a chance to win on the road, which will help us a lot."Michigan plays Minnesota (2.0) (wacky reference explained here) in Ann Arbor tonight. Tommy Amaker has a theory about his team's lackluster perimeter defense: "I really believe the way we've played on the offensive end has really taken the life out of us defensively. This has been my biggest pet peeve about basketball in today's time. It seems to be when players aren't scoring, their energy and life to play the total game isn't there. I think that has hurt us defensively." Wow. A not-so-veiled reference to a certain Wolverine point guard who's been struggling with his shot. Oops--wait a minute. Here's a completely unveiled reference from Amaker: "When we were playing well in the earlier stages of this season, (Daniel Horton) was right there playing as well as anyone. And now that we're not playing as well, you can look at his numbers. And that's not putting it on his shoulders or blaming him. That's certainly not what I'm saying at all. But he is a player that has to produce and produce big for us."...Profiles of catalytic Gopher duo Jamal Abu-Shamala and Zach Puchtel here and here.Purdue has earned praise from a number of observers for continuing to play hard in the absence of their entire projected starting five. Matt Painter, however, doesn't see what the fuss is about: "You should play hard all the time if you like the game of basketball, regardless if there is anybody in the stands. We've talked as a staff and with our team, and people shouldn't make a big deal out of people playing hard."Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! The day after Valentine's--and love is still in the air! So, Wonk,When are you going to give our Alando "Do" Tucker some love?12-of-20 (with the Indiana defense "focusing" on him)7-of-12 against Illinois8-of-17 against PurdueHe is the only scorer on the team (with any consistency) and defenses heavily double-team him. And he is still putting up big numbers against the double teams, generally in the paint at a whopping 6-5 tall. That's talent. Give 'em some love!Go Badgers.Zachary M.To borrow a line from Official Wonk Peep Kyle Whelliston, I'm uploading the love to Tucker as we speak. Not counting his 3-of-9 effort at Penn State on Saturday, Tucker posted a 1.18 PPWS over those previous three games, a considerable upgrade from his 0.98 for the season as a whole. Newly efficient scorer Alando Tucker, Wonk salutes you!