No Michigan State basketball fan wants to use injuries as an excuse for a loss (or at least they shouldn't), but heading into a tough Big Ten matchup at Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena, No. 7 MSU may have been playing with house money.
After all, any close loss could've still been written off as a function of Spartans' ever-present injury problems, namely the loss of post stalwarts Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
So what happened?
Just a hard-fought 71-69 overtime victory against the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes, injuries and hostile surroundings be damned.
The ingredients were familiar: Keith Appling's veteran leadership, Gary Harris providing all manner of plays even on a poor shooting night and young bucks like Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello each stepping up with big plays.
Even Russell Byrd, who usually only plays at the end of blowouts, but was pressed into service by the medical woes, came up huge with a pivotal three-pointer in the final minute.
Michigan State kept itself in the Big Ten title race with the victory, but the bigger picture is even more tantalizing. Winning games like these against young, hungry teams like Iowa is hard when fully healthy. Doing it without studs like Payne and Dawson is the mark of a team harboring championship potential once Payne is cleared for action.
Where'd This Come From?
Even missing the big bodies, Michigan State spent the game harassing and frustrating the Hawkeyes. Iowa suffered through three separate field-goal droughts of 4:59 or longer, including an obscene spell of 14:51 that ended on a Roy Devyn Marble layup with six seconds left in overtime.
Sparty's defensive aggression made life difficult for Iowa's offense, but it also kept MSU in the game. A whopping 29 Michigan State fouls granted the Hawkeyes 43 free throw attempts.
Iowa appeared unprepared for the sheer aggression of the Michigan State defense, expecting the undermanned opposition to play a conservative style to avoid foul trouble.
The biggest revelation of recent weeks has been the play of the sophomore Costello. After enduring his own forced absence via a bout with mononucleosis, Costello has played a major role during Payne's hiatus.
Eight points, five rebounds and six blocks against Illinois. Nine points and eight rebounds in the bitter loss to Michigan. Finally, the first double-double of his career with 11 and 12 against the long, deep Hawkeyes.
Izzo: "It was a tough tough tough game, but you gotta give our guys credit. Matt Costello was a Monster."— Adam Ruff (@Spartan_Radio) January 29, 2014
If there is a quibble to be found with Costello's performance, it would be a frequent reluctance to go straight back up with offensive rebounds. In one early second-half sequence, he pulled consecutive rebounds and kicked the ball out both times rather than go back up for potential dunks.
Costello's reticence in the post symbolized the offensive game plan, with the Spartans seeking more jumpers than looks in the paint. The 43-20 discrepancy in free-throw attempts was a function of that approach, although State did capitalize on a lot more drives in the second half.
NCAA expectations for Michigan State?
During the offseason, Michigan State fans took a great deal of umbrage to being left out of Bleacher Report's assessment of America's deepest teams. Six months later, all the bumps and bruises are conspiring to give those fans a great leg to stand on.
Aside from Costello's heavy lifting in Iowa City, classmate Valentine continues to assert himself offensively. His 12 points gave him his third double-figure scoring game in his last four outings.
Redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski has replaced Payne's ability to stretch opposing big men, making 14 of 22 three-pointers in his first seven games back from a suspension. Unfortunately for Kaminski, he's hit only one of his last 10, including a titanic struggle to convert against Iowa.
These players have been forced to shoulder a heavy load in extremely hostile venues. Like Iowa, for example. That kind of experience can't be earned in practice or even in front of sympathetic home crowds.
With Spartan coach Tom Izzo potentially targeting the Feb. 6 meeting with Penn State for Payne's return according to The Detroit News, that will give MSU nearly five weeks to re-integrate the preseason All-American before the Big Ten tournament.
Bumping down the minutes of Kaminski, Costello et al. to a more manageable level will free the Spartans to play more aggressively as a rule. They won't take anyone by surprise, but the restored talent level will be something with which the rest of the Big Ten will struggle to keep up with.
When the postseason rolls around, Izzo may have nearly all hands on deck, many of whom have been there before. By that time, this baptism that the younger Spartans have received will see them prepared for anything that the NCAA tournament throws at them
Even if the Spartans had fallen at Iowa, that experience would linger. The battle scars will only raise Michigan State's ceiling.
The spirits are certainly willing. Now, if only the bodies would heal and strengthen, MSU fans could start putting in for early-April vacation time, if not outright booking trips to Dallas.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.