Michigan State Basketball: Spartans Proving That They're Legit Big Ten Power
USA TODAY Sports
Losing a player like Draymond Green would decimate any team's roster.
The Michigan State Spartans surely miss "Day-Day," the walking double-double, but they've adjusted accordingly without the 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year.
Green's departure from East Lansing and arrival to the NBA quickly caused Spartans followers to shift their focus to junior guard Keith Appling, sophomore swingman Branden Dawson and junior forward Adreian Payne.
Even senior center Derrick Nix was expected to carry the load for Tom Izzo's crew.
So far, so good.
Payne is playing out of his mind, Dawson is showing the country that he's one the top youngsters in the game and Appling has been beyond clutch, evidenced by victory-sealing free throws that have helped vault Izzo and the Spartans to their familiar post—first place.
The 13th-ranked Spartans (17-3, 6-1) have a one-game lead over the Michigan Wolverines, sitting atop the loaded Big Ten Conference standings. Tuesday night's 49-47 win over Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers certainly opened eyes, too.
Winning at the Kohl Center in Madison is incredibly difficult. Consider the two-point edge over the Badgers as an indication of what's to come for a team that was questioned entering this season.
But will Michigan State stay at the top?
Will MSU win the Big Ten regular-season title?
Signs point to the Spartans peaking—and soon—but will they have enough Sunday to fend off the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington?
Reaching an apex in January means nothing, but this Spartans squad isn't done—not by a long shot.
Izzo has his plan in place. Michigan State's wheels are in motion.
And that's bad news for the rest of the league.
Making a Case for Spartans Being Best in Big Ten
Michigan is ranked No. 2 in the land and appears to be one of the most complete units in college basketball. For fans in Michigan, this season is special—it's not every year that Michigan's two biggest programs are fighting for supremacy in the same sport at the same time.
Well, maybe hockey. But never basketball.
That has changed, of course. However, that doesn't mean that the Spartans will quickly move aside and allow the Wolverines to boast the title of "best in the state."
When dialed in, the Spartans are arguably the Big Ten's most menacing force. Taking Adreian Payne away from the basket is a task. Slowing down Branden Dawson isn't easy. Stopping Keith Appling from being Keith Appling is nearly impossible (when he's being Keith, of course—if that makes sense).
Freshman Gary Harris is Tom Izzo's wild card. The first-year phenom hit timely free throws Tuesday against Wisconsin and is the Big Ten's leading shooter from the line (90.2 percent). He averages 12 points per game, a clip that's quite respectable when gauging the talent that the Big Ten has.
Not many teams have a frosh that plays like a seasoned vet. Harris' no-fear instincts give the Spartans an added boost.
A 59-56 nail-biter against Ohio State and 49-47 nerve-racker against Wisconsin were exactly the type of wins that Michigan State needed before heading down a road that has Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota eagerly awaiting for their turns to beat Izzo.
Sunday's duel with the Hoosiers will give a deeper look into the inner workings of Michigan State—is it built for the long haul, or has it simply benefited from good luck?
Well, luck has had a part—every good team gets a little lucky—but resilient, physical play—the trademarks of Izzo ball—have guided the Spartans past their nemesis.
It's a little early to call Michigan State the best in the Big Ten. A win over Indiana is needed before making that statement.
Rebounding Is Always Key For Izzo-coached Spartans
Tom Izzo likes teams that can rebound. This year's group leaves a little more to be desired, but Michigan State is among the best in the Big Ten when it comes to cleaning the glass on the defensive end of the floor (25.1 per game; Purdue leads with 26.1).
The offensive end? Well, there is work to be done there. Michigan State ranks eighth in the league with just 10.6 rebounds per game. That needs to change in order for the Spartans to convert second-chance opportunities.
Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have been mainstays in the paint and on the boards. The quicker they heat up, the quicker Michigan State rolls past its adversaries.
Or, as Nix would say, "R.I.P ta da competition," a phrase he tweeted just over a week ago. While dated, according to today's standards, the statement from Jan. 13 holds true. It's like he's forecasting his wave of unstoppable efforts.
Nix and Payne average close to seven rebounds per game—those aren't dazzling, eye-popping stats, but they're indicators of effectiveness.
Winning When It Matters Most
By now, Spartans followers are used to nonconference, early-season setbacks to teams like Texas, North Carolina, Duke and everyone else—let's throw Gonzaga in there, too.
However, those losses serve as great teaching tools come March. That's just what Tom Izzo does—he puts his guys through the wringer before conference play.
The methods to his madness work wonders, and Izzo frequently has a dangerous bunch that no one wants to play come March Madness.
Wins on the road at the Kohl Center matter—they're likely more meaningful to Izzo than we could ever know. Suddenly, stumbles against UConn and Miami (Fla.) seem less damaging, considering how the Spartans pulled out in a thriller against the Badgers in Madison.
Defending home turf is crucial. Although the Spartans rarely lose at the Breslin Center, it's safe to say that most Spartans followers were worried when the Buckeyes came calling Jan. 19. The Deshaun Thomas-led Buckeyes were ranked 11th in the land before falling by three points.
Defeating Ohio State and Wisconsin in close calls will surely be reference points as Izzo prepares his team for The Dance.
Be sure to visit Adam Biggers' B/R profile for an upcoming piece that will analyze the remainder of Michigan State's schedule.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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