Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Keys to Winning the Big Ten

Adam BiggersSenior Analyst IIDecember 29, 2013

Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Keys to Winning the Big Ten

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    Branden Dawson is part of the plan. He's resting a bum shin during the holiday break.
    Branden Dawson is part of the plan. He's resting a bum shin during the holiday break.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Owners of seven Big Ten title banners during the Tom Izzo era, the Michigan State Spartans must channel a former version of themselves if they want No. 8, which would be their fourth since 2009. 

    Lacking the traditional power on the boards and brawn down low, the No. 5-ranked Spartans (11-1) won't down the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa by operating under the current plan. 

    Major adjustments aren't needed, just minor tweaks.

    Stressing past success as a means to achieve future triumphs should be included, but Izzo may choose to alter his approach since he doesn't have a "traditional" Spartans-esque group to work with. 

    This slideshow will examine possible changes and scenarios that could prop Michigan State to the top of the Big Ten. 

Costello Returns at Full Tilt

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    Matt Costello averages 14.5 MPG through eight games played.
    Matt Costello averages 14.5 MPG through eight games played.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Matt Costello is the scrappiest player on Izzo's roster. 

    The former Bay City Western star has shaken the freshman funk and is quickly developing into a prized heavyweight in the paint. Now a sophomore, the only way is up for Costello, who suffered a bout with mononucleosis during late December. 

    Michigan State needs Costello at full health. Who else is going to bolster efforts on the boards? The Spartans are, perhaps, at their weakest in the rebounding department since Izzo took over in 1995, ranked No. 3 offensively and No. 8 defensively in the Big Ten. 

    Traditionally (there's that word again), Izzo-coached teams have been the opposite—powerful, unruly and completely dominant, not meek and unwilling to goon it up when necessary. 

    Brian Calloway of the Lansing State Journal posted the latest Saturday on Costello, who didn't play during Michigan State's 101-48 thrashing of New Orleans at the Breslin Center.

    But at least he's ready to go for Tuesday's conference opener at Penn State: 

    Izzo says Matt Costello was cleared to play today and almost played him a couple minutes. He thinks by next week, he'll be able to play.

    — Brian Calloway (@brian_calloway) December 28, 2013

Get Dialed in from Long Range

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    Gary Harris is streaky...until he gets going.
    Gary Harris is streaky...until he gets going.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    So it was against New Orleans...not a big deal. 

    But the Spartans shot 13-of-25 from long range, good for a 52 percent conversion rate. Off to a cold start, Gary Harris shot 4-for-11, while Keith Appling went 4-for-4. At one point, it seemed as if everyone was draining shots from everywhere. 

    Considering the competition, that type of feat probably won't happen during Big Ten play.

    Nailing 7.8 shots from long range comes in handy (No. 4 in B1G), especially for a team that can't rebound that well. Michigan State will have to make up for that deficiency somehow, so letting the ball fly from beyond the arc could be the answer. 

    Izzo doesn't promote a shot-happy offense. He prefers the grinders. But due to personnel issues, he may change course and morph the Spartans into a firing squad. If the Spartans can get nine or 10 to go from deep per game, they shouldn't have a problem competing in the rough-and-tumble B1G. 

    As it stands at the moment, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, Penn State and Illinois are the worst three-defending teams in the league. The Spartans play those teams a combined eight times this season, which doesn't differ much from other team's schedules. 

    But shooting well against teams that allow teams to shoot well will pay dividends. 


Promote Branden Dawson's Growth

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    Branden Dawson has a mixed bag of tricks.
    Branden Dawson has a mixed bag of tricks.Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    Branden Dawson didn't play Saturday due to a shin injury, which was most likely a precautionary move on Izzo's part. 

    When healthy, Dawson changes games. 

    “When he brings energy, we play well as a team, because he’s able to do so many different things out there," senior point guard Keith Appling said after Michigan State's win over Oakland, via Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal

    A second-half surge from Dawson helped vault the Spartans past the Grizzlies two weeks ago. Similar efforts throughout the year will only improve positioning in the league standings. 

    Essentially a walking double-double, Dawson, a 6'6", 220-pound junior, carries an average of 10.3 points and 9.3 boards per game. His value to Michigan State is higher than ever. As a veteran, Dawson will be counted on to ensure a healthy run through the NCAA tournament. 

    Maturation is part of life. Many athletes find themselves, both personally and on the court, while attending college. Through two full seasons, Dawson has proved to be as good or better than advertised. He's an X-factor, a game-changer, a shot in the arm. 

    He's important to Big Ten championship dreams. 


Polish Guards

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    Byrd couldn't get one to fall Saturday versus New Orleans. But he played decent defense.
    Byrd couldn't get one to fall Saturday versus New Orleans. But he played decent defense.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    It's been said before, and it'll be said again: Guards make Izzo's teams go round. 

    Keith Appling had 27 points versus New Orleans—not a bad tune-up session prior to Penn State. Travis Trice gained valuable minutes during the topping of the Privateers.

    Even Russell Byrd, who didn't score but played decent defense, clocked in for surprisingly efficient shifts, finishing with plus/minus rating of plus-22, per StatSheet.com.

    That stat means that the Spartans scored 22 more points with Byrd on the floor rather than on the bench. He shared the court with guys knocking down missiles from the perimeter and his numbers benefited. Nonetheless, with four rebounds and two blocks, Byrd displayed everything but a scoring touch (0-for-3). 

    He still needs work, but if he can get going on the defensive end, Izzo's bench could be quite potent: 

    Early take on MSU's hoops rotation. Six sure things, 3 battling bigs, and you can't sleep on Russell Byrd. http://t.co/ZinVphbQ3a

    — Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) November 5, 2013

Stars Must Be Stars

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    No days off for seniors Appling and Payne.
    No days off for seniors Appling and Payne.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    The title of this slide is self-explanatory. 

    Getting All-American play from Adreian Payne wouldn't hurt. Quality minutes from one of the game's best shooters, Gary Harris, certainly helps matters. Appling, well, he's one step away from "there"—the land of true senior point men in East Lansing. 

    He just has to avoid disappearing during big games in January and February, as was the case in 2012-13.

    Just more than a week ago, Payne scored a career-high 33 points during a victory over an extremely physical Texas squad. Be on the lookout for more spurts like that. They'll be necessary. 

    Once again, the Big Ten is one of the strongest conferences from top to bottom in college hoops. Michigan State plays No. 3-ranked Ohio State twice, while lucking out with just one meeting with Bo Ryan's No. 4-ranked Wisconsin, a team that, at times, plays Izzo ball better than Izzo teams play it.

    The Badgers literally grind opponents to a halt. How else do you think they win games 27-9 (not a real score, you get the point). 

    At first glance, an overly challenging stretch doesn't stand out on the schedule. That's because teams are developing. The Buckeyes should be contenders. Iowa could be a surprise. Penn State has the up-and-down thing going for it. If anything, the Nittany Lions could play their common role of spoiler. 

    Michigan is solid but could run into trouble without Mitch McGary, who's out indefinitely while recovering from a back surgery. 

    The Big Ten's outcome isn't written in stone; Izzo's big three is rock solid, and must play as such if the Spartans are going to dribble with the best in 2014. 


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