Shins, shoulders, blisters, ankles and toes—the Michigan State Spartans are feeling it everywhere, and the Big Ten season has barely begun.
Injuries are common, but when nearly every key man on the roster suffers from some type of boo-boo, plans can quickly derail.
Somehow, the Spartans (11-1) have avoided major trouble. Somehow, they’re the No. 5-ranked team in the nation despite poor rebounding and streaky shooting. Somehow, they’re still the team to beat in the Big Ten.
So imagine when Adreian Payne’s plantar issues dissipate. Imagine Gary Harris with a completely healthy ankle (and shoulder). No more blisters for Travis Trice, who missed important stretches in 2012-13 due to concussion-like symptoms.
Mononucleosis tackled Matt Costello in mid-December, but he’s primed for a return. And bum shins could be a thing of the past for Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL late in his freshman year and yearns to show what he can do when properly fueled.
Right now, they’re No. 5.
But that’s just the beginning for the Spartans, who sat atop the rankings earlier this season and are among five or six programs that have a realistic shot at cutting down the nets at Jerry’s World this spring.
Frontcourt First Aid
Plantar problems can hinder big men. But don’t tell that to Payne, who, despite a bum pedal digit, scored a career-high 33 points during a 92-78 victory over Texas in Austin.
The senior has All-American aspirations, and he’s undoubtedly one of the premier bigs in the game.
What equates to a flat tire shouldn’t keep Payne down for long.
He averages nearly 18 points and eight boards per game. He’s a 20 and 10 guy in his sleep. The only way is skyward for Payne, who should be among the first big men selected in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Tom Izzo wasn’t thrilled with Payne’s 17-and-seven showing during Saturday’s 101-48 romping of New Orleans.
However, Izzo loved what he saw against the Longhorns. He said that he wants to see more from his senior, via Brian Calloway of the Lansing State Journal:
I just didn’t think he focused in. That’s the battle nowadays. You hear more and more coaches talking about it — can guys maintain their hunger? He had seven rebounds and should have had 15.
I say that only because it’s important to me, it’s important to him. At Texas he went after everything, he looked like Draymond Green.
If Payne evolves into half the senior Green was, the Spartans’ frontcourt will flourish.
Green was versatile; he worked inside and could shoot from the perimeter—and he was the Big Ten Player of the Year. He even played a little point guard, something Payne did during late stages of the win over New Orleans.
Payne isn’t Day-Day. But Day-Day couldn’t stroke the 3 or extend above the rim to get those hard-to-reach boards like Payne. It’s a tradeoff. Izzo needs Payne to be at full tilt. Thus far, he's been at about 75 percent.
And that's good enough to maintain a No. 5 ranking...but not enough for Izzo.
Michigan State could have used more than 17 and eight from Payne versus North Carolina, which won 79-65 in East Lansing. However, Payne’s 29 fueled the jump past Virginia Tech, and he put up 15 during a win against Kentucky, which was No. 1 at the time.
But Payne isn't the only key down low.
|Return of the Matt (current and projected numbers)|
|ESPN player profile|
When motivated, Costello serves as a suitable replacement for Derrick Nix, the team’s former muscle in the paint.
Costello isn’t flashy, but neither was Nix. Like Nix, Costello isn’t afraid to trade shots—to the ribs, shoulder, face…whatever.
Costello’s unapologetic ferocity on the boards and in the lane is exactly what Izzo needs to get the train moving to the 2014 Final Four. A developing scorer and defender, Costello’s role should increase once he finally puts the mono bug to rest.
Michigan State has used Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling in Costello’s stead.
That experiment hasn’t proven productive, although Schilling seems to be making strides. Gauna never bloomed into what most expected—a serviceable starter, at the least—but he’s contributed with rebounds and a few shoves during his grind line-like shifts.
The frontcourt will go as far as Payne allows, but don’t dismiss Costello; he’s just as important in terms of bodying up the opponent. He’s more of a go-getter than Payne, who’s leaning toward finesse over brawn.
The Backcourt Spasms
One of these days, Harris will be ding free and score 35 to 40. It’s possible. He must get a handle on his streaky shooting, but he’s golden otherwise. Despite a lingering ankle issue, the sophomore remains the Spartans’ top scoring option.
When humming along, Harris can fill the bucket as well as any guard in the nation.
That’s a fact. He’s played nine games this year, averaging 17.9 points per outing and looking almost healthy while doing so.
He’s noticeably slower. Ankles will do that. Michigan State can endure another Harris recovery period, but it can’t be lengthy—something that ends by mid-January would suffice.
Izzo needs Harris for the charges in late February and early March, but having a few weeks of tourney warm-ups would pay dividends to Harris, a 6’4”, 205-pounder who’s an expected 2014 NBA lottery pick.
Keith Appling suffered a hip pointer during the loss to the Tar Heels.
But 27 points this past Saturday makes people forget about that—he looked extraordinarily fast. Maybe it was due to the lower competition, but the senior didn’t appear stressed or plagued with a half-step.
The words “motor,” “engine,” “catalyst” and everything else that describes a driving force have been used to paint a portrait of Appling, a speedy point man who can also score—he’s Izzo’s everything. Michigan State thrives with senior point guards.
Harris and Appling make up an incredibly effective tandem. Both rebound—Harris better than Appling—and play great defense. Each can score and hit their shots from the line. When clicking, they personify smooth and easy efficiency.
When healthy, or mostly healthy, the Spartans are one of the most complete teams in the country. Rebounding needs work, but the moving pieces are there, and a national-title run is all but waiting in the wings once shins heal, ankles mend and plantars go away.
|Power Up: A Look at Major Players' Health|
|Travis Trice||Blister (lingering issues)||85%|
|Denzel Valentine||The Lucky One||100%|
|Percentages are loose projections based on observations of each player.|
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81