Losing to Michigan didn't derail Michigan State, but falling certainly didn't help pad its lead in the Big Ten.
Out with a sprained right foot, Adreian Payne has ridden the bench for five games—including Saturday's 80-75 loss to the then No. 21-ranked Wolverines (15-4, 7-0), who occupy first in the conference.
Payne's value has never been called into question. But somehow, someway, the Spartans (18-2, 7-1) managed to post a 4-1 record without him. However, after being out-rebounded, 35-29, by the Wolverines, Tom Izzo's lack of power in the paint couldn't have been more clear.
Physically exhausted, Michigan State is in pain—and the remedy, now more than ever, is more Payne.
Derrick Nix's departure took away the "bully" instinct once shared by the Spartans. Although not as physical, Payne was the next-best thing.
Without Payne, Izzo is left with a semi-proven bruiser in Matt Costello. The sophomore is as rugged as they come, but he lacks offensive finesse, effectively removing the 4 as a scoring option.
Speaking of options, Michigan State is down a few in the scoring department, and that's going to be an issue for up to five weeks. Viewing poor footage caused Branden Dawson to break his right hand. Slamming the shooting paw on a hard table isn't a smart resolution, but what's done is done.
Kenny Kaminski, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling have each had their good days, but they can't replace Payne's presence, nor they can they replicate the impact of his 16 points and eight boards per game.
Incredible at reversing the force of gravity, Dawson is one the most aggressive above-the-rim threats in college basketball.
He'll be missed.
Co-sign the Backcourt
Keith Appling can barely move his wrist. Despite the nagging pain, he scored 10 points, dished 10 assists and had two steals against Michigan. Far from his best game, he once again proved clutch with late free throws.
Appling's last gasp was only a tease for the Spartans, who watched a six-point lead dwindle to three to two… Being hurt is never an excuse, not for battle-bred Michigan State.
But hey, let's be realistic here. Appling is essentially playing on borrowed time. There's no telling when he'll take a turn for the worse.
Michigan State can't have him flatline. He’s beyond important. His courage brought Izzo to tears, says Costello, per MLive.com's Gillian Van Stratt.
Coach saw what Keith did out there [vs. UM], what Keith's done the past two or three days. Heck, the last two weeks. Ya'll don't understand how hurt he is. For him to come out there like that, he put his heart on the line. And coach saw that. That's why he was like that. Everybody else did their job, played hard. But Keith put his heart on the line for us. We just didn't finish the game for him.
With 17 seconds to play, Gary Harris hit a three-pointer that cut the deficit to 77-73. The sophomore future NBA lottery pick put up a career-high 27 points, along with five rebounds, three steals and two assists.
During the past six games, he’s been one of the country’s elite shooters.
Entering Saturday, he averaged 18.6 points per game and hit nearly 41 percent of his shots from beyond the arc during his recent spin. He's as good as advertised and had no problem keeping up with Wolverines marksman Nik Stauskas, who's been on a similar six-game tear.
Injuries are going to take their toll. There's no way around that.
Luckily for Izzo, he's coaching one of his better backcourts. Denzel Valentine still can't resist the long ball, and wearing the 1979 throwback jersey against Michigan didn't make him pass like Magic.
Effective when calm, Valentine needs to become a bigger contributor and learn to shake inconsistencies. He's capable of giving Izzo 12 to 15 a night, along with five assists and a steal or two. He's versatile, always has been, always will be. That's his "Magic."
He's not as exciting and aerial as Dawson, but he can get above the rim, rebound, dunk and defend.
Valentine needs to get on the fast track to go-to status; his emergence is crucial.
Izzo Loves Tests
Insane preseason scheduling affords Izzo a certain amount of credibility during situations such as the one he's in now. He doesn't crumble. He knows how to handle challenges. He wins under fire.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's a given.
But look at it differently; he chooses to put his team through the gauntlet. Today, he's forced to do so. If you were looking for a real Spartans point guard to become a legend and do something Mateen Cleaves-like, you got your wish.
'Tis the season of battered leaders (fa la la la la), and if Izzo is going to get every ounce out his bench and every bit of energy from his starters, his forehead may have to do that thing (you know, that vein thing when he's really peeved).
The fact that he cried after losing to Michigan doesn't make him a sore loser. It makes him a passionate winner. Hurting for Appling, Izzo probably felt responsible for the failure. It's a learning experience that breeds champions, maybe more so than a home loss to thorn-in-side North Carolina, which always wins anyway.
Michigan State can't lose at home to John Beilein. That's an Izzo commandment.
Going on the road on Tuesday, the Spartans face No. 10-ranked Iowa at the visitor-friendly Carver-Hawkeye. After that, it's Georgetown, which lost big man Josh Smith for the rest of the year, per Gary Parrish of CBS Sports.
Right now, it's all about mental fortitude for Michigan State and Izzo, who'll learn a lot about his team vs. the Hawkeyes and Hoyas.
B1G Title Belongs to Great Lakes State
If it’s not Michigan State, it’s going to probably be Michigan. Prior to the Payne and Dawson sagas and before Appling’s wrist started to really throb, the Spartans were the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten.
With Mitch McGary, the Wolverines were expected to finish in the top three. Without McGary, they are No. 1.
Ohio State's taken a dive. Wisconsin's not unbeatable at the Kohl Center, and Indiana isn't last year's Indiana.
Sure, pundits speak of the league's parity all of the time. From top to bottom, the Big Ten is probably the best league in college hoops. Look at the 3-3 and 4-3 records—everyone is beating everyone, with the exception of Michigan and Michigan State.
Barring a collapse, the league championship should be settled by one, if not both, of these teams from Michigan.
Tough sledding for Izzo, but he's still in the hunt...not that he was ever counted out in the first place.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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