Michigan State is searching for its identity but remains in the top 5.
An obvious work in progress, the Michigan State Spartans seemingly have two versions of themselves: the good team and the not-so-consistent, barely-win team.
The latter won't do much for coach Tom Izzo, who's aiming for his seventh Final Four since 1999. The Spartans (8-1) aren't expected to do much this year, other than cut down the nets at Jerry's World and be the subject of CBS' "One Shining Moment" montage.
Child's play, right?
The talent is there. Already battle-tested, the Spartans split a pair of meetings with North Carolina, which won 79-65 in East Lansing, and Kentucky, which lost 78-74 in Chicago. The next step is to get all of the gears moving in unison, rather than firing one piston at a time.
Inconsistent but dangerous, Michigan State has a few statistics worth noting from the opening stretch.
Gary Harris, yet again, is battling injury. This time it's his ankle.
Considering his tussles with shoulders and ankles, Gary Harris was lucky to have missed just two games at this point of the year.
He injured his right ankle during the preseason and could have missed up to six weeks. But he's always been more than willing to play, even when he's not at 100 percent.
Gary Harris told Dwayne Stephens before the game he was going to ask to play. He didn't ask. Izzo said: "Good thing, woulda played you."— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) December 14, 2013
Harris’ dry streaks from long range are of concern, and he's had two of them: a 2-for-12 effort against Virginia Tech and a 3-for-10 output against Oklahoma (both wins). Normally a sharpshooter, Harris has hit 40 percent from behind the arc just once this year. He did so three times during his first nine games in 2012-13.
He also dealt with a shoulder injury during late November, so he's accustomed to playing in pain.
Nonetheless, he leads Michigan State with 17.6 points per game (No. 5 in the Big Ten).
Are the Spartans a powerful 8-1 team?
Considering its schedule with Kentucky and North Carolina, it’s a wonder that Michigan State has lost just once this year.
Just as perplexing, it’s a wonder how the Spartans have managed to maintain a one-loss record after close calls with Oakland and Columbia—they squeezed out a 78-74 win over then No. 1-ranked Kentucky, which was an early sign of the Spartans' up-and-down ways.
Judging by what they’ve shown, the Spartans, who are ranked No. 5, could be 6-3 instead of 8-1. Michigan State hasn't been as dominant as its record suggests.
Keith Appling (L) is the B1G's No. 6-leading scorer; Payne is No. 7.
Far from a shock at this point of the year, the Spartans have three of the Big Ten’s top scorers: Harris is No. 5 with 17.6 PPG, Keith Appling is No. 6 with 16.9 and Adreian Payne is No. 7 with 16.3.
Clipping opponents for 81.4 points each time out has its benefits, such as producing a few high-end scorers.
As the season progresses, Izzo's trio of Harris, Appling and Payne should continue their bucket-filling trend. Seeing each of them finish as No. 1, 2 and 3 wouldn't be much of a surprise, either. Perhaps more realistically, keeping true with No. 5, 6 and 7 shouldn't be an issue.
When it comes to rebounding, MSU isn't MSU.
This stat is impressive due to its unimpressive nature.
Since when does an Izzo-coached team outgain teams by just four boards per game? That margin should be, at the very least, in the plus-10 range.
Michigan State's scoring defense is No. 10 in the league, allowing just under 68 points per game. The lack of physical rebounding doesn't help stifle opposing scorers.
In short, the Spartans aren't getting second-chance opportunities on the offensive end, and they're not doing much to win the war on the defensive glass. Michigan State has looked nothing like its former sturdy self, let alone like an Izzo team.
The Spartans must toughen up in the paint and scrap for loose balls. That's been a staple since Izzo took over in 1995. Michigan State routinely ranks in the top 10 in the nation. Coming in at No. 5 in its own league is unacceptable.
Odds and Ends
Branden Dawson leads the Big Ten with 3.1 offensive rebounds per game. He's Izzo's only top-10 player in that category, which is baffling considering that it takes just 2.4 per game to make the list.
Payne is No. 2 in the league with 6.6 defensive boards per game. Dawson is No. 4 with 6.2.
Matt Costello is seeing a ton of playing time.
Matt Costello’s four blocks in the loss to North Carolina were impressive, especially since the Spartans lacked any type of hustle against the Tar Heels, who are a perennial thorn in Izzo’s side.
Suffering from what was later reported as mononucleosis, the sophomore earned each of his 17 minutes by scoring six points—he went 3-for-5—and hauling in four boards. He didn’t commit a turnover and was dinged with just one foul.
He’s resting now, but Costello should be ready for the Big Ten season, which gets in full swing in January. Averaging 14.5 minutes per game, Costello has more than doubled his freshman mark of 6.1 per game.
Izzo says he hopes to get Gary Harris back this week. As for Matt Costello: "No clue on that."— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) December 14, 2013
Thus far, Costello's season high is 22 minutes vs. Oklahoma; he's had 17 twice (UNC, VT).
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81