Keith Appling and the Michigan State Spartans are reeling after a third straight loss.
The Michigan State Spartans have entered uncharted territory this season after suffering their third straight Big Ten loss.
Not only is the three-game slide a season-high for the Spartans, but it seems that their leader, Keith Appling, has become unglued at the hinges, yet again failing to deliver when he's needed most.
Appling's pedestrian nine-point, six-rebound and five-assist night was just another drop in the bucket -- he's on a decline, and it's difficult not to notice. He shot three-of-nine from the field Sunday in the Spartans' 58-57 loss to the Michigan Wolverines at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
After smearing the Wolverines, 75-52, in East Lansing just three weeks ago, there was reason to believe that Sunday's duel would be Part 2 of the festivities. Michigan was fresh off a setback to a Penn State team that was previously winless in the Big Ten. Michigan State had back-to-back losses to Indiana and Ohio State, and appeared hungry to right its ship before the end of the regular season.
Sunday's game taught us that things aren't always as they seem in the Big Ten, a league in which any team can truly beat any foe on any given night.
Branden Dawson's two-point showing against Michigan raises serious questions about his desire to perform.
Branden Dawson was once thought as the most NBA-ready player at Michigan State.
His 6'6", 230-pound frame combined with insane athleticism has been raved about during the past two years he's been with the Spartans.
However, Dawson, a former Lew Wallace High star (Gary, Ind.), scored just two points Sunday (one-for-four) against Michigan.
He scored eight points in each of Michigan State's past two losses. Dawson is capable of averaging 12-14 points per night. He's shown the ability to go on scoring sprees. He was ineffective against Michigan, and his stock is plummeting by the minute.
The sophomore rebounds well and has been good for a timely steal or two, but his inconsistency is a bother.
Dawson is too talented of a player to stay down for long. Something has to click with him in order for the Spartans to truly be a threat come The Big Dance.
Adreian Payne will be needed for another year -- will he stay?
For those who haven't noticed by now, Adreian Payne is making a serious case for being considered among the elite big men in college basketball.
The dunks, the blocks and the 3-pointers have Payne being talked about by national media, not just local Michigan State and Big Ten beat writers.
The 6'10" lanky junior dazzled yet again Sunday with 17 points and 12 rebounds in the Spartans' loss to Michigan. He played for 33 minutes, racking up a six-of-11 shooting night complemented by hitting two-of-five from long range.
He also made each of his three attempts from the foul line.
Derrick Nix leaves after this season, and Payne's presence will be imperative for the Spartans next year -- that's if he chooses to stay. As mentioned in a previous slide, Branden Dawson's stock is hitting a low.
But Payne's is skyrocketing.
That's great for Payne, but not for coach Tom Izzo, who will likely plea with Payne to stay for his senior year.
Gary Harris has been incredible this season for Michigan State.
Kansas' Ben McLemore is the best freshman in the nation -- no doubt about that.
He scored a freshman-record 36 points Saturday in the Jayhawks' 91-65 thrashing of West Virginia. McLemore should win Freshman of the Year honors.
But enough about McLemore. He's not the only star first-year player in college hoops (but he's the No. 1 man-child), Michigan State's Gary Harris deserves consideration, too.
Although Harris hasn't electrified crowds with 30-point outbursts, he's most certainly one of the top youngsters in the game today. Averaging 13.2 points per night, Harris is Michigan State's second-leading scorer behind Keith Appling, who averages 13.4.
Harris put up 16 points Sunday in a loss to Michigan and hit seven-of-16 shots from the field.
The former Hamilton Southeastern (Fishers, Ind.) star isn't McLemore. But take the Jayhawks sensation out of the equation, and there would surely be many more college basketball pundits signing Harris' praise.
Three straight losses are enough to make any coach go ballistic -- even Tom Izzo.
Tom Izzo is an energetic and passionate coach.
Don't mistake his sideline antics for anything but sideline antics. He's a marquee leader and knows how to get the best out of his players. However, after losing to Ohio State, Izzo questioned his team's desire.
"I haven't seen the same grit since after that Michigan game," said Izzo to the Huffington Post, referencing Michigan State's 75-52 win Feb. 12 over Michigan."We're not coming in not playing hard. We played hard against Indiana, they just beat us. I just thought today you give up that many layups – 57 percent shooting in the second half – they should run me out of town."
Imagine how he feels after Sunday's one-point loss to the Wolverines. Michigan State dominated the boards, 41-28, and put forth a valiant comeback effort.
But it wasn't enough.
How much more of this can Izzo take before he really explodes? Sure, he's "been there, done that," but Michigan State's recent three-game nosedive suggests that something isn't right in East Lansing.
At this point, Izzo is the only one who can do anything about it.
Trey Burke and Michigan are 1-1 versus MSU this season. Burke has 39 combined points in the two meetings.
Trey Burke, perhaps more than any other player in the Big Ten, has absolutely lit up the Michigan State Spartans this season.
The sophomore scored a team-high 21 points Sunday in Michigan's 58-57 victory, but his last-second steal after an in-bounds pass highlighted his overall performance.
Burke has risen to the challenge each time he's faced Michigan State in 2013. Although his 18-point offering wasn't good enough Feb. 12 to vault Michigan over the Spartans, he's absolutely shown up against his in-state foe.
Note: In a preview piece done earlier this week, I touched on a few areas that Michigan State had to focus on in order to avoid losing to the Wolverines. One of those points, obviously, was stopping Burke. The other, and perhaps the most telling after Sunday's loss, was to avoid "falling in love with the 3-pointer" -- the Spartans made just six-of-22 from long range.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81