Michigan State Basketball: Midseason Report Card for the Spartans
By now, the Michigan State Spartans should know what type of team they are.
Judging by the quality of the Big Ten this year, the 12th-ranked Spartans (18-4, 7-2) are right where they should be: near the top of league standings and firmly pegged in the race for conference supremacy.
However, Spartans followers don't always gauge Michigan State on the here and now.
No, comparisons are largely made due to past success. While that's a luxury that Green and White supporters have grown accustomed to, it's not necessarily the most accurate way to judge progress and potential.
One area that gets a little foggy is coaching. Tom Izzo is the constant factor in the Michigan State basketball equation. So when Mr. March's time comes for a grade, his mark will most certainly reflect what he's done during his illustrious career.
The intent of this midseason report card is to forget the past and focus on the 2012-13 season. The report will cover important areas pertaining to team play, but it will also size up key players' showings through the midpoint of the year.
But, as mentioned, looking back—if even for a mere moment—is inevitable and inescapable. The past, however, will carry little weight.
Michigan State, as usual, is a team that's capable of gliding its way deep into March. Whether or not this year's group measures up to midseason marks posted by classic Spartans teams is irrelevant.
Well, for the most part anyway.
Overall Performance: B
Look at Michigan State's strength of schedule. Then, look at it again.
The Spartans routinely have one of the most trying slates of opponents for a couple of reasons: 1. Tom Izzo is crazy; he's said as much himself. The Spartans always face tournament-like competition and battle ranked teams weeks before they hit the Big Ten hardwood. 2. See reason No. 1.
With that being said, the Spartans grade of "B" is more than fair, but having to face UConn and Kansas in the first two contests of the year wasn't.
Michigan State lost 66-62 to UConn in Germany just four days before facing then-No.7 Kansas on Nov. 13 in Atlanta.
Between flipping time zones like a gymnast and playing away from East Lansing, the Spartans fared well with a split (beat Kansas 67-64).
Narrow wins over Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette may have raised concerns, but keep in mind that the Spartans typically take time to develop each year. They seldom burst out of the gate by playing their A-game.
With that being said, the Spartans' 4-4 record against RPI Top 50 teams leaves something to be desired; their 3-0 mark of RPI top 51-100 clubs is respectable.
Michigan State commands high expectations every year. There's that pesky "past factor" that was mentioned in the introduction. The Spartans have the 20th-ranked schedule in terms of strength. So, despite a .500 record against the RPI Top 50, they'll get a small break on their overall grade.
Scoring Offense: C
Michigan State is a grinding team, meaning that it wears down opponents with defense and typically dictates the tempo of games.
But that doesn't always translate to droves of points.
When looking at this year—and this year alone—the Spartans are an average-scoring team in the Big Ten with a clip of about 70 points per outing (seventh in the 12-team B1G). That average is consistent with the style that Tom Izzo coaches; he relies on other factors to put away the opposition.
However, Michigan State can eclipse 80 points from time to time. The Spartans put up more than 80 in wins against Big Ten foes Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska.
Giving the Spartans a middle-of-the-road "C" in scoring may seem a bit out of the ordinary, but it's a justifiable grade when looking at the rest of the league.
Scoring Defense: B+
The Big Ten isn't known as a high-octane scoring conference.
A league proud of its physical brand of basketball, most teams have a difficult time scoring more than 75 or 80 points per night—unless that team is Indiana.
The Spartans are typically a sound defensive unit, so their opponents' average of 59.4 points per night is respectable—and it's the third-best in the Big Ten.
Michigan State may have lost 75-70 to Indiana, but Indiana leads the league with 83.8 points per night. The Hoosiers beat Minnesota 88-81 and downed Michigan 81-73. The Gophers and Wolverines have two of the better offenses in the Big Ten.
Tom Izzo's club has shown shutdown tendencies this year. The Spartans' defense, obviously, is a work in progress. But so far, so good. A mark of "B+" is appropriate, especially when looking at how the Spartans buckled down against Wisconsin in 49-47 win.
It's always a defensive-minded duel when Izzo faces Bo Ryan, but Ryan's Badgers throw 67 points a night on the board.
Despite being the Big Ten's third-best rebounding team, the Spartans aren't cleaning the glass at maximum efficiency.
Michigan State averages 38.1 boards per game, about 7.4 better than their opponent on any given night. A double-digit advantage is what the Spartans need to aim for.
Click here for a diagram and video of Tom Izzo's famous "war" drill. It definitely lives up it to its name.
Helmets, pads and plenty of Izzo's maniacal tactics make the Spartans one of the country's elite rebounding programs. Look for more intensity in this area from Michigan State in the weeks to come.
The Bench: C
Minus freshman Denzel Valentine and sophomore Travis Trice, Michigan State's bench reserves haven't been overly impressive.
Trice is all hustle, but his energy often leads to bumps and bruises—and broken noses and concussions. When healthy, he's good for about five points, two assists and a rebound per night.
Like Trice, Valentine sees about 20 minutes of action per night. His contributions are different, though. He's more of a well-rounded scorer and facilitator than Trice, who is just a pure nuisance to opposing players.
Valentine typically finishes with about five points—but he's capable of doing much more—four rebounds and a couple of assists. The Lansing native has played well with multiple fouls, kindling discussions about his basketball IQ and overall awareness—which are both great for a freshman.
Guys like Alex Gauna and Matt Costello provide strength in the paint. Gauna, a redshirt sophomore, is making strides; Costello is up-and-down, but he's a true freshman.
An below-average bench aided by the efforts of Valentine and Trice afford an overall grade of "C."
Keith Appling: B-
Let's face it, Keith Appling has A+ potential; he just doesn't always show it.
Let's use the Illinois game as an example of just how quickly he can tilt the balance: He scored a game-high 24 points in the 80-75 victory, but he was missed in the first half. The Spartans were down 37-27 and in danger of losing back-to-back contests for the first time all season.
However, Appling knows when to turn on the jets, and he absolutely ripped the Illini with spin moves to the basket, alley-oops to Branden Dawson, ice-cold three-pointers and game-sealing free throws.
So what's the problem? Why does he get a modest "B-" when he's clearly one of the best guards in the country?
Well, simply put, Appling doesn't always assert himself in the early goings. He waits—for some odd reason—to completely take control. His antics make for great theater, but steadier first halves may keep him from having to dazzle in the final minutes.
But hey, he's incredible to watch. As long as he gets the job done, Tom Izzo is a happy camper.
Appling has the skill set to lead the Big Ten in scoring, however, he's 11th in the league with an average of 14 points per night (Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas leads with 20 PPG).
Adreian Payne: B-
Adreian Payne has transformed from a 5-star prospect failing to live up to expectations into a former 5-star prospect that's showing why he was a 5-star prospect.
The 6'10" junior is gaining attention by the day; he's become a go-to force for the Spartans. Payne definitely has NBA potential.
Payne's numbers aren't spectacular—about 10 points and seven boards per night—but the way he impacts the competition is worth noting.
He intimidates, alters shots and makes guards think twice before driving to the rim. Overall, Payne deserves a higher grade because of where he's come from in terms of development. But, he gets a "B-" because 10 points and seven boards a night from a guy his size are expected.
Derrick Nix: C+
Derrick Nix's career at Michigan State has been rocky.
In and out of Tom Izzo's doghouse, Nix has the tendency to frustrate to no end.
Nix missed an appointment with a tutor, costing him a starting spot against Illinois, but he's certainly developed into a mature player—considering where he started—over the years.
A staple of the Spartans' frontcourt, Nix averages nine points and 6.5 rebounds per game (11th in the Big Ten). Although a bit undersized compared to other true centers, the 6'9", 270-pound senior doesn't have a problem going elbow-to-elbow with the premier big men in the Big Ten.
In order for the Spartans to reach their true potential, Nix has to continue his maturation—both mentally and physically—to be successful.
Leadership qualities mean a lot, especially to seniors at Michigan State. Seniors set the tone, and Nix hasn't really reached an apex in terms of guiding teammates. However, his presence alone makes success in the paint difficult for other teams.
Because of Nix's up-and-down tendencies, he gets a "C+." But he's capable of so much more.
Tom Izzo: A
Considering the fact that Tom Izzo lost one of his all-time greats in Draymond Green—a coach on the floor—he's done a wonderful job with the 2012-13 Spartans.
Often called one of the game's best, Izzo is known for doing more with less; he doesn't always get the 5-star studs (Jabari Parker), but he makes do—and makes runs in March—with lesser talent.
A great coach inspires others on and off the floor. Izzo is a legend. That won't change, regardless of the outcome of this year.
There is a reason why NBA teams wait around for Izzo to say when; he's that great of a leader. Izzo's no-nonsense approach to managing talent makes him invaluable to the Spartans.
Izzo gets an "A," as he should. Throw in a gold star and happy face, and Izzo has a report card that a parent could be proud of.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81