They just have something that’s difficult to explain. These incomplete, oft-injured, Big Ten-contending, won’t-go-away-even-on-the-road No. 7 Michigan State Spartans.
Somehow, they knocked off No. 15 Iowa in Iowa City on Tuesday during a brutal Big Ten game that even the purists would call foul. There was nothing pretty about the 71-69 Michigan State overtime win.
There were mostly mistakes.
Officials made the bulk of them -- so many missed calls, confusing whistles and inconsistency.
Early in the second half, Keith Appling triple-jumped to the bucket and scored. It apparently wasn't a travel. Fran McCaffery drew a technical after he protested -- and that wasn’t the worst call of the night.
The officials were joined in folly by the two teams competing against one another for a meaningful Big Ten win.
You could have watched “Titanic” twice during Iowa’s lengthy stretch without a field goal (in reality, it a 14:50 period that started in the second half, bled into overtime and felt like forever). There were 63 combined free throws (43 attempts by Iowa, 20 by Michigan State).
Roy Devyn Marble scored 21 points on a 7-for-15 night. Iowa’s other starters? Just 6-for-19. Michigan State committed 29 fouls and made just 11 of 20 free throws.
In the end, however, Michigan State snatched the win from an Iowa team that should watch this game film for the rest of the season until it captures the grit that the Spartans boast.
Matt Costello’s late tip-in and Russell Byrd’s crippling 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in the extra period that gave the Spartans a six-point edge were examples of that grit.
They held a bigger Iowa team to just 10 points in the paint during the final 25 minutes of the game, per ESPN Stats & Information.
The Spartans were missing two key starters -- Adreian Payne (foot) and Branden Dawson (broken hand) -- on the road against an Iowa team that usually employs 10 guys with minimal drop-off and yet Michigan State still won.
It wasn't all offense. Appling, Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris, Byrd and Costello were all significant playmakers for Michigan State throughout the night. The team hit clutch shots down the stretch that the Hawkeyes couldn’t match.
And it wasn’t all defense. Michigan State was tough on Iowa but some of the shots were mysteriously awry for McCaffery’s program. Nothing would fall.
The Spartans keep fighting, despite their limitations. They haven’t been healthy all season, but they’re still legitimate candidates for the Big Ten title. Payne and Dawson will eventually return. But they don’t have any plans to accept mediocrity until they’re available.
Every team abides by a similar motto when star players are lost for a chunk or all of the season. They all say the same thing.
We just have to go out there and focus on the guys we have on the floor.
It’s always some variation of that. And it’s nonsense.
In practice it’s never easy to adjust to life without the guy or guys who do things that only they can do for a program. Costello is no Payne. The latter is a unique inside-outside threat who is a young man birthed from the athletic, Euro-hybrid breed.
Yes, they miss Dawson, too. Not just because of what he brings on paper, but because he embodies the brashness that Tom Izzo’s programs have historically embraced.
And yet, there they were in Iowa City throwing punches, ignoring what they didn’t have and focusing on the guys on the floor. They were deliberate, relentless and nasty.
You need that edginess to win conference titles and to survive in the postseason.
Iowa doesn’t have that yet.
That was apparent right after the opening tipoff. The Hawkeyes were walking while Michigan State was running. The Spartans seized a 10-3 lead that set the tone for the night.
You should be worried, not us.
That was their message.
And that bravado, expressed by a team that probably shouldn’t have it given its circumstances, can confuse teams.
The Hawkeyes were at home but looked like a frustrated road team for a portion of the evening. They eventually returned fire and even took a significant lead in the final minutes of regulation. But they couldn’t hold onto it, and the near 15-minute stretch without a field goal didn't help.
But in a game like that, when everything seems to be going wrong for everyone and neither team is playing to its potential, a moment or two can dictate the outcome.
Melsahn Basabe’s late misses. Zach McCabe’s would-be layup that became a turnover when he got blocked a foot from the basket. Byrd’s 3-pointer in the corner in the final seconds of overtime.
Last season, Iowa would have been given credit just for pushing the Spartans. But not this one. The Hawkeyes are too talented for passes and excuses. They have to win games against contenders if they want to be a serious factor in the NCAA tournament.
On Tuesday, they looked like a team that was waiting for something. Waiting for Marble to make something happen. Waiting for a lucky bounce. Waiting for Michigan State to miss.
And that was the difference in the end.
The Spartans just took it.