Michigan State Basketball: Are the Spartans Really National Title Contenders?

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Michigan State Basketball: Are the Spartans Really National Title Contenders?
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Can Tom Izzo lead the Spartans to The Promised Land? BTN's Jimmy Jackson thinks so.

Some would wholeheartedly disagree, while others would firmly back up Big Ten Network analyst Jimmy Jackson's suggestion that the Michigan State Spartans are national championship-worthy. 

Late Sunday night, Jackson, a former Ohio State star, participated in a title team mock draft with well known college hoops writer Mike DeCourcy. Jackson didn't hesitate when mentioning Tom Izzo's Spartans as legitimate threats to cut down the nets in April at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. 

"If they can stay healthy with their backcourt, this is a team that's tough to match up with once you get outside of conference play," Jackson said (via MLive.com's Diamond Leung).

Health is an issue for Michigan State, which will likely be without sophomore guard Travis Trice on Tuesday when it hosts the Michigan Wolverines

Star junior guard Keith Appling recently injured his right shoulder, junior center Adreian Payne took a blow to the nose and freshman sharpshooter Gary Harris has dealt with back spasms. 

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Injuries are certainly a concern, but depth—or lack thereof—is a problem at this juncture of the season. 

At this point, without Trice, the Spartans bench looks below average at best when freshman guard Denzel Valentine is taken out of the equation. Minus Valentine, Michigan State's reserves are virtually ineffective. 

Russell Byrd, Alex Gauna and Matt Costello log somewhere in the range of 20 minutes per game combined but produce less than six points. Meanwhile, Valentine plays about 20 minutes and puts up 5.3 points per outing—not a stellar average, but Valentine's contributions go far beyond his point totals. 

As long as the starters keep pace with their nightly clips, Michigan State should be in good shape come March Madness. However, having at least two reserves who can score five points a night would put the Spartans in a much better situation. 

 

Why the Spartans Can Contend for a National Title

 

Coaching

 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Tom Izzo has six Final Fours on his rap sheet.

Tom Izzo. Enough said. 

He doesn't play, obviously, but Izzo's presence alone is worth at least a few points during tournament time. His ability to debate with officials can be the difference between the Spartans gaining a possession or two in crunch time. Those possessions could yield a couple of buckets. 

With a resume like Izzo's, it's hard to discount any Spartans team during The Dance. 

 

Keith Appling

 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Keith Appling can dominate when he wants to.

Appling can put the game into the palm of his hands and absolutely be the difference in close contests. Not many guards in the country have Appling's killer instinct when push comes to shove, and the junior is undoubtedly Michigan State's MVP. 

As a freshman, Appling scored nine points in the closing minutes of the Spartans' 78-76 second-round tournament loss to UCLA. Veterans were fading, the Spartans needed life and Appling delivered.

The former Detroit Pershing phenom now has more experience and maturity—those two factors bode well for Izzo's bunch. Guards drive championship teams, and Appling is comfortable in the driver's seat. 

 

The Bigs

 

Not many 6'10" guys can get up like Adreian Payne.

Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix combine for a unique blend of power, athleticism and shot creation. 

Nix can dance along the baseline and lay one in with a crafty move with his left paw. Payne can knock down shots from the elbow, dunk on monstrous centers and even hit the occasional three-pointer. 

Sure, guards carry the weight in March, but it'd be a challenge to find a college team with such comparable versatility in the front court as Michigan State's. 

 

Why the Spartans Can't Contend for a National Title

 

Spartans Haven't Really Shown True Potential Thus Far

 

Although Illinois has gained momentum, it's still not one of the Big Ten's elite.

Michigan State always play one of the most challenging schedules. That being said, StatSheet.com ranks the Spartans' docket at No. 18 in terms of strength

The Spartans are 3-3 against the AP top 25 and 6-4 when playing a team ranked in the RPI top 50. A 9-2 Big Ten record is impressive, but in order to win a national title, it's likely that Michigan State will have topple teams like Duke, Miami, Indiana or comparable programs. 

Izzo's players stand tall against formidable foes. However, they've let lesser teams linger in conference play (e.g., Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa). Granted, those hiccups were earlier in the year, and most title contenders hit a couple of bumps in the road. 

But Michigan State seems to lack the "it" factor, the ability really blow the doors off lesser opponents. 

The Big Ten has flexed its muscle, laying claim to being the top conference in college hoops for the past couple of seasons—but it hasn't produced a national champion since Michigan State conquered Florida in 2000. 

However, Ohio State, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State have each earned runner-up status since the turn of the century. 

Izzo has said that this year's Big Ten is the best he's ever seen. The Spartans coach crowned Indiana as the league's "most complete" league member. It's entirely likely that the B1G will produce this year's champion. 

But will it be Michigan State? 

 

Injuries

 

Michigan State needs Travis Trice to be healthy come March.

As mentioned above, injuries are holding back Michigan State from reaching an apex. If healthy, the Spartans are contenders, but if Gary Harris further agitates his back and Travis Trice doesn't return to the lineup, national title hopes fade. 

Every team has injuries—they're part of athletics—but it's rare for a team to have key players dealing with them at the same time. 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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