Somehow, some way, Michigan State survives without Adreian Payne.
Of course, it goes without saying that the No. 4-ranked Spartans (17-1, 6-0) miss their infinitely important pillar of consistency.
Nonetheless, they’re more than capable of making do and adapting to the treacherous road ahead without the 6'10", All-American-esque senior.
Three games into the Payne-less period, Michigan State remains lethally dangerous and ready to charge at a moment’s notice.
Having Payne, obviously, makes Tom Izzo’s bunch more potent.
However, Saturday’s 78-62 slow-drilling of Illinois in Champaign spoke volumes about a hungry program that's finding ways to win despite unfavorable odds.
Payne's already sat out three games, so it's fair to say that he could be out for up to three more. Izzo said that his Big Ten player of the year candidate will return when he's "pain free," per Gillian Van Stratt of MLive.com.
Sitting atop the Big Ten standings, the next three games will be crucial for the Spartans, who look for conference banner No. 8 of the Izzo era.
Not only does Payne need rest but the 6-0 start needs padding.
|Next 3 Better Be the Best 3|
|Date||Opponent||Record||National Rank||Big Ten Rank|
|Jan. 21||vs. Indiana||12-6 (2-3)||N/A||No. 8|
|Jan. 25||vs. Michigan||13-4 (5-0)||N/A||No. 2|
|Jan. 28||at Iowa||14-3 (3-1)||No. 14||No. 3|
|Information via ESPN.com, accurate as of Jan. 19, 2014|
So it's approaching late January, and Izzo probably expects the annual winter woes to emerge one way or another.
In the past, slumps have been due to poor overall team performances.
Thus far, minus weak rebounding and inconsistent defense, the Spartans have put forth solid efforts. This year, injuries are the main issue, not necessarily discipline or team togetherness.
The Hoosiers typically put up a fight, regardless of venue, so don't think they'll roll over any time soon. Remember, they swept the Spartans in 2012-13 with 72-68 and 75-70 victories. In this case, home-court advantage can be thrown out of the equation.
Also, it's important to remember that Keith Appling scored just nine points combined in both of the losses. A regular Appling game would have likely translated into a pair of wins for Izzo, who X'd and O'd his way to a 73-56 edging of Tom Crean's crew Jan. 4 in Bloomington.
Winning the season series will be the motivator. And, for Appling, finishing what he started could be a personal goal. On Jan. 4, the senior point man put up 14 points. Building on that total and leading in Payne's stead will be the key this week.
Harris threw a career-high 26 at the Hoosiers during his last time around. Fresh off a 22-point output versus the Illini, it's quite likely that he's just warming up for the really big one. Whether that comes against Indiana remains to be seen.
But Izzo probably wouldn't mind an insane offensive spree vs. the Wolverines, who rang up a program-best road win Saturday by knocking off No. 3-ranked Wisconsin, 77-70, at the Kohl Center in Madison.
On Feb. 2, 2011, the Hawkeyes spanked the Spartans in Iowa City, 72-52. They haven't beaten Izzo since. Coach Fran McCaffery—the forever animated roamer of sidelines—has Iowa turning heads, but the veteran nature of Michigan State may be too much to handle Jan. 28.
Three games. Three must-wins. Already on an Izzo-best tilt, the Spartans, with or without Payne, have the necessary components to manufacture a 9-0 start.
The Past Three
|Rehashing Latest Stretch|
|Date||Opponent||Record||National Rank||Big Ten Rank|
|Jan. 18||at Illinois (W 78-62)||13-5 (2-3)||N/A||No. 9|
|Jan. 15||vs. Northwestern (W 54-40)||8-9 (1-3||N/A||No. 10|
|Jan. 11||vs. Minnesota (W 87-75 OT)||13-3 (2-1)||N/A||No. 5|
|ESPN (W/L records as of game day)|
Saturday's thumping of Illinois was what the Spartans needed—a quality road win minus their do-all big.
Presence in the paint is always valuable, but there is an exception to that rule, especially for teams that shoot 6-of-15 from beyond the arc. Marksmanship has been an in-and-out trait of Michigan State hoops, but rebounding and defense have been staples.
That being said, the shoot-em-up Spartans look just as effective as the beat-em-up Spartans, who reigned supreme during a 54-40 win over Northwestern.
Branden Dawson's 11 rebounds, Alex Gauna's eight points and Matt Costello's two elbows—literally speaking—were responsible for the Spartans' cheerful exit from Welsh-Ryan in Evanston. If reliable through the stretch, they should prove to be the extra muscle needed during Payne's recovery.
Quite possibly on the road to redemption, Dawson showed improvement versus Illinois. He's not scoring a ton, but he's had more than 10 boards in two of his past three games. Payne's points need replacing, but Dawson is doing an adequate job on the boards.
His increased determination over the past week has paid dividends.
Averaging nearly 19 points in his past three outings, Harris stands to climb a few notches on the national ladder if continues wearing a green and white cape. In short, he's been phenomenal all season, but he's recently raised his own bar.
When fully healthy, Harris can score with anyone in the country, which is great for Izzo. However, Harris is also one of the better rebounding guards, evidenced by the five per over each the past three outings.
At 6'4" and 215 pounds, Harris can bump in the lane on his way to two points, or he can finesse his way through traffic and knock down open jumpers with his eyes closed.
Appling's a senior who's playing the best ball of his career. As long as he keeps erupting for 20-plus—which has been the case in two of his past five games—he'll have everything under control.
Value, though, comes from all areas when referencing Appling, who's also picked up the pace with rebounds, averaging about five per during his past four games.
In true Izzo fashion, Appling is going above and beyond.
Sure, Michigan State misses Payne. But the show keeps going, with or without him.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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