Michigan State Basketball: 5 Positive Signs from Spartans' Start in 2013-14

Adam Biggers@@AdamBiggers81Senior Analyst IINovember 21, 2013

Michigan State Basketball: 5 Positive Signs from Spartans' Start in 2013-14

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    Gary Harris seems to be as healthy as possible. That's a great sign for MSU.
    Gary Harris seems to be as healthy as possible. That's a great sign for MSU.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Being ranked No. 1 for the first time since 2001 is just one of multiple rays of positive light being shed on Michigan State basketball. 

    The Spartans (4-0) also have a win over Kentucky, which was No. 1 in the nation before falling 78-74 to the Spartans in Chicago on Nov. 12.

    Adreian Payne and Keith Appling appear to be in mid-season form—Appling has topped 20 points twice and Payne is on a career pace. 

    Though they've only played four games, the Spartans have demonstrated tournament strength in the month of November.

    As usual, Big Ten play will be the true test. However, before that happens, Michigan State has to get past the likes of March-worthy programs such as Virginia Tech and North Carolina. 

    This slideshow will highlight five of the most interesting angles from Michigan State's quick jump in 2013-14. 

They've Already Been Scared

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    Portland gave MSU everything it had.
    Portland gave MSU everything it had.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    With expectations stretching to the cosmos, anything less than perfection won't be accepted. 

    Michigan State's 62-53 win over Columbia was unacceptable. Well, the actual act of winning wasn't unacceptable, but the manner in which Tom Izzo's team escaped was. 

    It was Columbia, for starters. No one in the world gave that team a chance of knocking off the Spartans at the Breslin Center in November—that never happens. 

    Saying "that never happens" isn't a way to describe a rare occurrence. It isn't rare. It really never happens. Izzo is 52-0 at the Bres in November. 

    Good luck to the teams looking to snap that streak. It's an uphill climb. 

    Fans always want to point to an early near-loss or "good" loss as the moment that the Spartans forged together as one.

    In the past, losses to North Carolina on aircraft carriers or overtime failures to Gonzaga in Maui served as springboards to success. 

    Throwing the Lions into that category seems a bit odd...but hey, why not? They threw jabs at the top-ranked team in the land on its home court for 40 minutes. And while we're at it, the Portland Pilots deserve mention. 

    Michigan State needed a late run to walk away with the 82-67 victory. 

    If anything, the Spartans learned a lesson that every team should know: You can't underestimate the "little guys" of college basketball. Because if you do, you'll turn around and be beaten by the Belmonts and Robert Morrises of the world. 

Gary Harris Is Sort of Flying Under the Radar

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    Harris has scored 20 points twice this season.
    Harris has scored 20 points twice this season.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    In June, Gary Harris was tabbed as the No. 1 shooting guard in the country by Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy. 

    However, after that, Harris suffered an ankle injury during preseason workouts. He appears to be at or near full health, but he's an old man by today's standards. 

    He was a hot ticket in 2012-13; it's time to make way for the new crop. 

    Everyone is concentrating on the freshman class, which includes Duke's Jabari Parker, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Kentucky's Julius Randle. 

    With the exception of Harris and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, college fans probably won't hear a whole lot about sophomores. 

    Or juniors. 

    Or seniors. 

    That's the way of the land these days.

    Now of course Harris isn't really "under the radar." He's averaging nearly 17 points and five assists per game. But he's shooting less than 30 percent from long range. Nevertheless, he's a star and guaranteed lottery pick come spring. 

    Being somewhat overlooked is a good thing. That probably doesn't lessen Harris' internal pressure, but the slightest of sophomore slights may cause the competition to doubt him. 

    Advantage, Michigan State. 

There He Is...

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    Keith Appling is coming into his own.
    Keith Appling is coming into his own.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Now a senior, it would only be fitting for Keith Appling to go out in style. 

    So far, the former Detroit Pershing Doughboy looks the part of an Izzo-propped, seasoned floor general. Those types of players have been trademarks of Michigan State's success for decades, and especially during Izzo's reign. 

    Appling's been a three-assist point man for too long. Kicking up that average to the five or six range would elevate teammates, who, in turn, would elevate Michigan State to its chosen destination—mixed among the four best in April at Jerry's World, for example. 

    Threading the needle against small non-conference opposition isn't a big deal. But dishing out eight assists against Kentucky, one of the fastest and athletic teams on this side of the NBA, says something.

    Appling looked comfortable against the Wildcats. He looked at home. Not a stranger to the spotlight, Appling proved why the Spartans are considered the favorite to win it all. 

    They're deep and have a senior point guard. 

    Seth Davis of CBS fame recently took notice of Appling, who scored 25 points, sank five of five from long range and hit six of six from the line during an 82-67 victory over Portland. 

    Keith Appling had 7 assts and 1 TO vs Portland last night. Don't know how he did it, but that dude is a PG.

    — Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) November 19, 2013

Matt Costello's Progression

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    Matt Costello continues to show toughness on the court.
    Matt Costello continues to show toughness on the court.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Matt Costello made late strides during his freshman year. He showed up in March and supplied brawn in the lane as the Spartans rode along to the Sweet 16. 

    Now that Derrick Nix is gone, Costello, a sophomore, has no choice but to ramp up his efforts, which he has. Judging by four games this year and his 12 minutes per game, Costello is on his way to becoming more than an effective player for Izzo—he's on his way to becoming quite valuable. 

    Size, of course, is Costello's best asset. At 6'9" and 240 pounds, he's difficult to maneuver around. He's aggressive on the boards, too. That helps. Michigan State has made a routine of being one of the best rebounding programs in the game. 

    It's a calling card of vintage Izzo teams. 

    ICYMI: The search for a reliable center to complement power forward Adreian Payne is centering on Matt Costello again http://t.co/4xlD9803jY

    — GreenandWhite.com (@LSJGreenWhite) November 20, 2013

    Appling with the pass, Costello with the finish.  

    INSTANT REPLAY: We highly suggest you check out this pass from @MSU_Basketball's Keith Appling. WATCH - http://t.co/N8qW1bIgPf

    — Big Ten Network (@BTN_Michigan_St) November 19, 2013

Izzo's Fire

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    Tom Izzo is still Tom Izzo...he's just older and grayer.
    Tom Izzo is still Tom Izzo...he's just older and grayer.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Izzo's desire keeps things moving. 

    As long as he's hungry, he'll never be satisfied. He probably imagines CBS' slow-motion montage at the conclusion of the title game—his Spartans laughing, cutting down nets...ahh, the glory. Seriously, if Izzo is the coach we think he is, he's probably thinking of that scenario at this exact moment. 

    All kidding aside, this really is "the year." Eternal optimists think that each season because of the team's exemplary track record. At the very least, a Final Four is around the corner. Each of Izzo's four-year players have been to at least one. 

    Izzo's spent the past 30 years of his life dedicated to Michigan State basketball, and for those who've followed the program, his aging and graying are like a badge of fan honor. They've essentially watched him grow up as a coach. 

    Reaching godfather status hasn't slowed down Izzo one bit. He's still one step away (literally, in some cases) from the action on the floor. Over the years, Izzo's appeared ready to take the ball from one of his players and run the play himself.

    He's probably said as much during a timeout.

    Izzo's fire fuels Spartan basketball. 

    @JayBilas and Tom Izzo was on the floor helping on those drives. Love his passion

    — Geno Auriemma (@genoauriemma) November 13, 2013

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