Adreian Payne has been sidelined for the last six games with a sprained foot, and his front court complement, Branden Dawson, sat out the last couple of contests after injuring his hand in a film session. Collectively, the duo has averaged 26.4 points and 16.4 points per game for Michigan State this season. But they shouldn't rush back.
The Spartans have discovered a new recipe for winning without the big boys inside; one that promotes ball-sharing and defensive cohesiveness as the pillars.
Just how effective has that formula been? Without Payne and Dawson, Michigan State has only lost one game.
Now, obviously the Spartans are a more fortifying force with those guys in the lineup, but Michigan State has convincingly proven that they are more than capable of surviving without them.
Take the Iowa game, for example. Michigan State was entering a raucous environment that had fueled the Hawkeyes to 20 straight victories. Iowa boasted an offense that scored 85-plus points routinely, not to mention their team was thirsty for a win, which would catapult them ahead of the Spartans in the Big Ten race.
The game was aired on ESPN, and the entire situation primed Iowa for its official breakout on a national stage.
But Michigan State had other ideas. From the opening tap, the Spartans suppressed Iowa offensively by staying disciplined and forcing the Hawkeyes to make contested shots.
Offensively, Sparty struggled. Gary Harris cooled down from his frenetic scoring pace from the three previous games, and they had to rely on role players like Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and even Russell Byrd to step up.
And they certainly did, on both sides of the ball. Michigan State held Iowa to a a paltry one field goal in the final 15 minutes of regulation to seal the win, while hitting clutch shots in the meantime. The game exemplified Tom Izzo's brilliance and the Spartans' never-say-die attitude.
Clearly, without Payne and Dawson, they lose a considerable amount of overall production. But Michigan State can win without them, and Izzo should allow those guys to recuperate fully before returning.
Here are the reasons why the front court duo shouldn't rush back.
Overall, the Spartans are an impressive 19-2. All season long, they have been riddled with incessant, nagging injuries, which somehow haven't prevented them from winning.
Of those 21 games, Adreian Payne has played in 15 of them. Since his injury occurred nearly one month ago, Michigan State has gone 5-1, which includes three away wins.
But without Payne and Branden Dawson, their teammates have proven that they can win by playing a certain brand of basketball. That style is predicated on hard-nosed defense, scoring easy points in transition and rebounding as a complete unit.
And it has clearly worked.
One of the Spartans' several strengths is their willingness to share the ball. Per ESPN Stats and Information, they assist on 62 percent of their shots from the floor and outscore opponents in transition by 11 points per game. They also rank sixth nationally with 17.5 assists per game.
That mindset hasn't altered without Dawson and Payne in the rotation, as Michigan State has passed for 30 assists in the past two games.
Additionally, the Spartans have an array of capable outside shooters. They have made 17 three-pointers on nearly 37 percent shooting in the last couple of games, even with marksman Kenny Kaminski struggling immensely.
Perhaps the most prevalent concern without Payne and Dawson's services available is the potential rebounding disadvantage. However, the team matched Iowa's 38 rebounds in their recent contest, which is extremely impressive because the Hawkeyes rank third in the nation with 43.7 rebounds per game.
Neutralizing Iowa's greatest strength without Sparty's top rebounders is a testament to their discipline and athleticism. Without Payne and Dawson, Matt Costello occupied the paint, grabbing 12 boards. Guards Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine pulled down six rebounds apiece as well.
Collectively, Michigan State has continued to succeed even despite the injuries to Payne and Dawson.
With the possible exception of the Wisconsin game in Madison on Feb. 9, Michigan State's next several contests should result in victories.
Their next game is against a reeling Georgetown team that is only 3-6 in the Big East. After that is another home contest versus Penn State, a team that just capped a signature victory against Ohio State, but otherwise, has struggled to succeed in conference play. The Spartans upended Penn State by 16 earlier this season.
After those two games, Adreian Payne should be nearing his return, if he hasn't already. According to ESPN's Andy Katz, Tom Izzo actually noted that Payne's targeted date to play again is Feb. 6 against the Nittany Lions.
But Payne shouldn't force anything. Michigan State should defeat its next two opponents in the Breslin Center, but Wisconsin will present a tougher challenge. If Payne sits out the Penn State game, then that will supply him with three additional days to prepare for the team's showdown against the Badgers.
Conversely, Branden Dawson's timetable is roughly three to four weeks after sustaining a hand injury over a week ago.
Once Payne is hopefully activated, the squad will square off against three teams that place in the bottom half of the Big Ten: Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue. That's probably the softest portion of Michigan State's schedule.
While it's foolish to rule out potential upsets in any of the aforementioned contests, Michigan State will be heavily favored and expected to take care of those opponents. If Dawson is progressing quickly, then there is a certain matchup that Tom Izzo may want him for: Feb. 23 at Michigan.
The Spartans will want revenge in that one. And if they enter it with a clean bill of health, then it's very possible.
Matt Costello is a former Michigan Mr. Basketball award-winner. In the Iowa game, he certainly dominated like he did back in his high school days.
Costello was a force in the paint, amassing 11 points and 12 rebounds against a premier Iowa front court. He has effectively expanded his role as a mere rim-protector. Now, the Michigan native finishes everything around the hoop, grabs everything in reach and made nearly everything at the charity stripe.
And he was deadly accurate. Costello went three of four from the floor and five of six from the free-throw line.
More importantly, Costello has provided a legitimate post presence. After the injuries that Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson sustained, the team would logically be forced to rely on their backcourt for the primary production.
However, Costello has filled in admirably. Normally a complementary player with a constrained offensive role, he has emerged as a scoring presence.
It would be unreasonable to expect Costello's offensive capabilities to replicate either Payne's or Dawson's. But if he continues to sustain his 10-point, 10-rebound average that he has produced over the last two contests, then the team would blossom that much more.
Lastly, he is the only true post player that isn't currently suffering from an injury, with the possible exception of Alex Gauna, who played only three minutes against the Hawkeyes. Costello is more relied on than ever, and he is certainly capable.
His surprising play will only aid the team during the absences of Payne and Dawson. If Costello keeps it up, then Payne and Dawson won't need to rush back.
With every injury to a pivotal player comes its subsequent frustrations to the replacements. But it also provides valuable experience.
Given the injuries to Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson, Matt Costello has seized the opportunity to become more involved offensively. However, it's been more difficult for Alex Gauna and Kenny Kaminski to adopt greater roles. Meanwhile, Russell Byrd has played sparingly but made one of the biggest shots of his career to seal the Iowa game with a three-pointer in the corner.
Regardless of performance, all three of those post players have gained ample experience and will continue to do so with Payne and Dawson out.
Denzel Valentine has also benefited. The 6'5" guard has had to adopt a role where he is forced to play big and compete for rebounds. His transition to starting has been a relatively smooth one.
Those momentarily enhanced roles will pay dividends as tournament time nears. From the start, the Spartans have had a plethora of skill, defensive prowess and experience, but now they are becoming deeper as well.
Payne and Dawson's injuries may be blessings in disguise because of the vast number of competent players the Spartans will have to offer.
Michigan State is excelling at the moment without two of their best players. But they will certainly need them in order to survive the gauntlet that is the NCAA Tournament.
Initially, Payne was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, which then turned into a severe foot sprain. Prior to his ongoing foot issue, Adreian Payne was constructing a stellar season. He is second on the team in points and rebounds per game and serves as a constant mismatch to opposing defenses.
The last thing that Tom Izzo wants is his star power forward to re-injure that foot again.
In addition, Izzo and company will need Branden Dawson at full health come tournament time. He is one of the premier offensive rebounders in the country and can change a game's momentum at any touch. When he's tuned in, Dawson is a complete force.
Together, the counterparts boast one of the best front courts in college basketball. Mesh that with a tremendous back court, and the Spartans have the pieces required to win a national championship.
However, it's imperative that they don't return too quickly. Michigan State is playing well without the big men and are capable of carrying the load as Payne and Dawson recuperate.
Big Ten play matters, but the NCAA tournament is where legacies are born. The Spartans will need Payne and Dawson fully healthy in order win the Big Dance.