Tom Izzo has reason to be optimistic heading into March Madness.
The Michigan State Spartans' tepid 71-61 victory Sunday over the Northwestern Wildcats closed out their Big Ten regular-season schedule, affording a third-place spot in arguably the premier college basketball conference in the land.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo said that Michigan State followers "should be prouder of this team than maybe any other team I've had" during a post-game speech to fans at the Breslin Center (televised on the Big Ten Network).
Izzo cited an "up-and-down" season that was challenged by hurdles on the way as reason why not to be disappointed in Michigan State, which will likely be anywhere from a No. 2 to No. 5 seed in March Madness.
Prior to their 10-point win over Northwestern (and Wisconsin), the Spartans lost three straight conference outings, the most since losing three in mid-to-late January 2011.
Michigan State ended the first half of the Big Ten docket with a 7-2 record, only to finish the stretch with a 6-3 run. The Spartans, however, performed to the level that most expected. Winning a Big Ten regular-season championship would have been welcomed, obviously, but the Indiana Hoosiers secured the outright title with their win Sunday over Michigan.
In this slideshow, we'll look at the good and the bad of the 2012-13 edition of the Michigan State Spartans, grading team and player performances while also analyzing areas like rebounding, scoring and quality wins/hurtful losses.
The Spartans weren't spectacular this year, but they were respectable.
Michigan State is No. 5 in the RPI rankings, a system that gauges strength of schedule and how a team performs against its particular lineup of opponents.
In the early goings of the year, the Spartans took down the Kansas Jayhawks, a team like Michigan State in the sense of being talented but inconsistent for stretches at a time. The Spartans lost to the Miami Hurricanes and that setback, at the time, had a somewhat disappointing feel.
However, Miami showed that it was indeed something to contend with, securing its first ACC title en route to obtaining what should be a No. 2 seed in March Madness (depends on play in ACC tourney).
Kansas is ranked No. 7 in the RPI and Miami is No. 4.
Due to Michigan State dropping three winnable games before knocking off Northwestern, a "B-" grade is appropriate.
Branden Dawson had just 10-point game during his final seven of the regular season.
The Spartans were seventh in the Big Ten in scoring during the midway point of the year, and they finished the regular season at seventh with an average of 68.8 points per game.
The offense wasn't as explosive as it could have been, and that's partly due to Keith Appling's streaky play. At one time, Appling averaged just over 14 points per game. He had a staggered, three-game slide against Indiana (twice) and Ohio State in which he scored just 12 points (each were losses).
Branden Dawson was another inconsistent offensive contributor. He attacked Wisconsin with 18 points just days prior to burning Purdue with 20—but he fizzled out during the homestretch, putting up 10 or more points just once in his final seven games of the year.
Michigan State's overall offense played at a "B" level or higher during wins over Michigan and Purdue, but it lacked zeal and energy in the second half of the Big Ten docket, warranting a "C" for a final grade.
Travis Trice always hustles for the ball. He was one of Michigan State's top defenders this year.
Michigan State finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, the same spot it was in at the midway point of the Big Ten schedule.
Giving up 59 points per game in the most physical league in the country is quite respectable, so a final grade of "B+" is in order for a team that held Michigan under 60 points twice this year (split series 1-1). The Wolverines were second in the league, averaging 75.6 points per night—that two-game series showed that the Spartans defense could hold its own.
Adreian Payne emerged as one of the country's top rebounding centers during the second half of the Big Ten season.
Michigan State, as expected, was one of the better rebounding teams in the Big Ten.
The Spartans finished fifth in offensive rebounding and fourth in defensive rebounding—categories in which the top team was separated by just a couple of boards from the middle-of-the-road teams.
At the midseason point, the Spartans received a grade of "B." However, when adding in Adreian Payne's monstrous 14-plus rebound nights, the team's overall mark deserves a bump.
Payne and Derrick Nix were the only two Spartans in the Big Ten's top 20 individual category.
Denzel Valentine was a key bench contributor this season.
Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine essentially carried the Spartans' bench while Travis Trice was out with concussion-like symptoms.
Alex Gauna helped alleviate pressure with quality minutes in Michigan State's 75-52 win over Michigan, and he had two points in eight minutes in a 72-68 loss to Indiana.
The Spartans' bench was hit-or-miss for most of the year, but it oftentimes came through during the latter stretch of the Big Ten season, warranting a final grade of "C+".
Keith Appling finished strong with 37 combined points in Michigan State's final two regular-season games.
As stated in the midseason report card, Keith Appling carried a "B-" grade. Now that the conference regular season is over, he sits with a "C+" due to no-shows in three second-half league games (two versus Indiana, one against Ohio State).
Appling has the ability to take over when he wants to, but he failed to deliver for most of the homestretch. The junior bounced back with 19 points in Michigan State's win this past Thursday over Wisconsin and 16 on Sunday in Michigan State's 71-61 victory over Northwestern.
Appling was the 14th-leading scorer in the Big Ten with a 13.4 points-per-game average.
Adreian Payne is one of the top centers in college basketball.
At the halfway juncture, Adreian Payne had a grade of "B-". At that time, he was just starting to show glimpses of living up to his previous 5-star prep billing.
As the year progressed, so did Payne, who scored 11 or more points in five of his last six outings of the regular season. Payne's double-doubles of 17-and-12 and 12-and-15 really opened college basketball fans' eyes; he developed into one of the better bigs in the country, not just his own league.
Because of Payne's relentless attack, he commands a final grade of "B+".
Derrick Nix's energy helped Michigan State during the second half of the Big Ten gauntlet.
Derrick Nix has never been an explosive scorer, but he had a three-game tilt in which he scored 17, 14 and 13 against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska, respectively.
Nix's energy increased as the season wore on, providing a spark of emotion that the Spartans missed for periods this season—a final grade of "B-" is appropriate.
If Michigan State gets Nix in his current form during the NCAA Tournament, it can count on an aggressive big man in the middle. However, if Nix regresses and plays undisciplined ball, the Spartans will be in trouble come time to dance.
Tom Izzo has been criticized for "over coaching," but he has Michigan State in familiar territory, warranting a final grade of "A".
Tom Izzo getting anything less than "A" would be ludicrous.
The Spartans coach, as mentioned in the intro slide, said that Michigan State followers should be proud of the 2012-13 team—and he's right.
Considering that the Spartans made do without the leadership of Draymond Green—something that would have surely decimated any team in college basketball—speaks to Izzo's courtside savvy. He is indeed one of the game's ambassadors, and Izzo is right where he wants to be this time of year, preparing for another sustained run in March Madness.
Izzo's commitment to excellence always makes the Spartans a viable force in the NCAA tournament. Depending on the matchups, the Spartans could make their way to the Elite 8 or further. Forecasting the Spartans as a Final Four team at this particular moment would be difficult, and billing them as a Sweet 16 team would undersell them.
It's March. Izzo is ready. Spartans followers know the routine.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81