Keith Appling has to perform well during March or it's curtains for the Spartans.
We're nearly a week into the Month of Izzo, and the Michigan State Spartans are trying to regain control of the wheel after hitting an oily slick on the twisting road known as the Big Ten.
Now three games into a losing streak, the No. 10 Spartans (22-7, 11-5) face a few looming issues before they can throw their hat back into the ring of national title contenders.
Remember, just a few weeks ago, Big Ten Network analyst Jimmy Jackson considered the Spartans to be a viable threat to cut down nets in Atlanta. He wasn't alone, as college pundits across the nation felt that Michigan State was a team to beat in March Madness.
Things have drastically changed since then, and if the Spartans can't somehow find a happy medium, they're doomed for a premature exit in the Big Dance—which in their case, would be a second-round bow-out of the postseason festivities.
Typically picked to advance deep into March or into the first week of April, Tom Izzo's Spartans could be in trouble if key players like Keith Appling fail to deliver in the NCAA tournament.
This piece will provide a five-way look at what Michigan State has to do in order to make a dent in the competition during March and possibly reach its seventh Final Four under Izzo.
Keith Appling's jets have been cooled off, but he still has fuel in reserve—or so the Spartans hope.
As a freshman in 2010-11, Keith Appling had a dazzling, but limited, spurt during Michigan State's 78-76 second-round NCAA tournament loss to UCLA.
Though it was a loss, it was a sort of grand debut for Appling, who piled on nine points in the final 2:30, inching along Michigan State's comeback effort along with Draymond Green, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers.
It was a sure sign of pure dominance to come for Appling, who was fresh out of Detroit Pershing High and primed to lead the Spartans' guards after Lucas' departure.
Michigan State has role players who will certainly have to contribute, but the reality is that Michigan State will only go as far as Appling takes it.
Adreian Payne could notch all the double-doubles possible. The bench could put forth relentlessly productive minutes each night—but those offerings wouldn't take the Spartans to Atlanta.
Michigan State may be able to survive a round or two while Appling is on ice, but there won't be a Sweet 16, Elite Eight or Final Four if he continues his inconsistencies on the court.
Can Gary Harris lead if Keith Appling fails?
Let's say that Keith Appling is a no-show through the first two rounds of March Madness.
If for some reason his nosedive continues, Gary Harris could be asked to shoulder the offensive load for Tom Izzo's club.
It would take nothing short of an immense amount of luck a little help from the Basketball Gods, but Harris' explosive nature could—and let's stress "could"—get Michigan State to the Sweet 16.
Of course, he'd have to be in the midst of a super-frosh shooting streak to do so—a few sips of the Ben McLemore potion—but it's quite possible judging by what he's shown during his first year in college.
But could he handle it? Would that be too much to ask from a player who's leading the Spartans in scoring (13.3 points per game, Appling 13.2). Harris has played well beyond his years. At this point, he probably has Izzo's tacit approval—and that's both positive and negative for the Spartans.
Derrick Nix has given nothing but effort all year. Does he have more?
Derrick Nix's desire and commitment have been questioned in the past. He's not always the most reliable in the scoring column each game, but his will can't be denied—one look at his face during a game erases any doubt that the senior center wants nothing more but to win.
But when the going gets tough, will Nix fold or flourish?
It's an honest question to ask, a reasonable concern to express. He's never been in the position to be the guy for the Spartans. He played under leaders like Draymond Green and Kalin Lucas in years past, avoiding the position of being Chief of Blame.
But this year is Nix's year. Is he the leader he said he wanted to be, or is he all talk?
Nix's up-and-down career in East Lansing will be defined in just a few weeks. If he's the player that he appears to be, the Spartans won't go down without Nix swinging the most.
Are the Spartans ready to buckle down and win six in a row in March?
The ultimate goal, as it is every year, is to win a national championship.
Tom Izzo was there in 2009 but lost to North Carolina; he emerged with a win over Florida in 2000, coaching the legendary "Flintstones" team that put Michigan State basketball back on the map in terms of national relevance.
Michigan State strung together a six-piece of wins during Big Ten play this season. Doing so in arguably the deepest and most competitive league in the country was impressive. The Spartans beat Wisconsin and Ohio State during that stretch and bounced back with five straight wins after losing 75-70 to Indiana, including victories over Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.
Can the Spartans piece together a similar trend in the national tournament? An early exit in the Big Ten Tournament would almost be welcome at this stage—rest is what counts.
Or does it?
UConn had to win-out during the Big East tournament before going six in a row in 2011 en route to capturing a national championship (won 11 straight before title).
Does this year's Michigan State team have a fraction of the drive that Kemba Walker and Co. had two years ago in March?
It's not panic time for Spartans followers yet, but they're surely looking for positives after bowing to Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.
Adreian Payne may have to play the games of his life in March.
Seeding is crucial this time of year, and the Spartans could play themselves into as high as a No. 2 seed or as low as a No. 5, depending on if they win out their Big Ten schedule and claim a conference tournament championship.
Remember last year, the year of the underdog—and keep that in mind when gauging Michigan State's chances in the spring shuffle.
The Norfolk State Spartans were a No. 15 seed and knocked off the No. 2-seeded Missouri Tigers in the second round (or first round for those who don't consider the First Four the actual first round of the tourney).
The mighty Duke Blue Devils, also a No. 2 in their bracket, were granted an early dismissal courtesy of LeHigh, a team that Michigan State struggled with early on in the 2011-12 season. South Florida, a No. 12 seed, beat No. 5 Temple, and the No. 3-seeded Michigan Wolverines met their demise when they faced No. 14 Ohio—not Ohio State, just Ohio.
See where this is going?
The road to Atlanta won't be forgiving, and Michigan State could be a team ripe for the picking for the lesser-valued, underdog programs this year. It's unlikely that the Spartans will slip past No. 4, but if they do, worrying about a 5 versus 12 upset—or similar pairing—would be warranted.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81