Missing two key players, Tom Izzo is forced to stitch together lineups to make up for low manpower.
Saturday's 64-60 loss to Georgetown was the latest pile of bricks to hit Michigan State.
Not only are the Spartans without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, but they've lost two of their past three games and have battered-beyond-belief guards leading the charge.
Unfortunately for Tom Izzo, even Keith Appling and Gary Harris get tired. Michigan State is dragging, and its nonconference loss to the Hoyas only punctuates the obvious.
At 19-3 (8-1), the No. 7-ranked Spartans need to find answers to the five hot-topic questions covered in this slideshow. Their future in March could depend on it.
Adreian Payne could return Feb. 6 vs. Penn State.
The absence of Payne's 16 points and eight rebounds continues to nag the Spartans.
Sidelined with a sprained right foot, the All-American-caliber senior has watched his team post a 5-2 record without his services. At 6'10", he's key to Izzo's ailing rebounding game.
After being dominated inside by Georgetown on Saturday, the Spartans' deficiencies in the paint become clearer with each passing game. They need more down low; there is no other way to say it.
Payne is day-to-day and is expected to return against Penn State on Feb. 6. The ship isn't sinking, but Michigan State needs him sooner than later.
MLive.com's Mike Griffith reported the timetable for practices.
Keith Appling is running on fumes.
As far as courage goes, Keith Appling's cup is full.
As far as health goes, he's running on empty.
After losing to the Hoyas, the Spartans senior point man took to Twitter, most likely referencing his 3-of-9 shooting (0-of-3 from three-point range) and seven points during the implosion at The Garden.
With his right wrist aching, his shoulders popping and hips pointing, Appling is suffering from a variety of bumps and bruises.
He's talked about some of them and perhaps fibbed about others. If he has, good for him. A true leader never reveals his weaknesses. It's clear that he's close to keeling over, but Appling will never tell. He just keeps going.
Keith Appling is here. Downplaying his wrist injury. Says he'll see how it feels later today.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) January 27, 2014
Travis Trice's hustle is losing hustle.
If not for Travis Trice's 3-of-5 shooting from deep, Michigan State wouldn't have had enough to get by Iowa 71-69 in overtime. That being said, had he not gone 0-of-5 against Georgetown, the Spartans would have probably left The Garden with a win.
When teams lose by four, it's acceptable to put shooters under the microscope. Trice is just one of them.
Losing Payne has hobbled but not crippled the Spartans. With a concerted effort from the bench, losses such as Saturday's can be avoided. In the seven games since Payne's departure, Trice has scored 10 points twice, but he's also been blanked twice.
He is capable of bursting for the occasional 10 to 15. Those games will be few and far between, but giving seven or eight on a consistent basis would ease the burden. Thus far, he's been 10 points or three points.
Michigan State needs bench scoring. The guards are in trouble, and Izzo needs relievers who remain cool under pressure. Trice can be that. He's been that. But at the moment, he isn't that.
The following tweet from the Lansing State Journal's Chris Solari highlights concerns about Trice's consistency.
Travis Trice looks lost with the ball in his hands right now.— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) January 29, 2014
Branden Dawson is key to March.
He's 6'6" and 220 pounds of dunk, block and attitude.
He's Branden Dawson, who broke his right hand—his shooting hand—after watching film of a sub-par performance vs. Indiana. That rash decision to bang his hand on a table symbolizes his career in East Lansing.
Each time he seems to be on the brink of emerging as the true 247Sports 5-star recruit he once was, he gets slammed by a setback. As a freshman, it was an ACL. As a junior, it's his shooting hand and reports of not feeling like himself, per MLive.com's Gillian Van Stratt.
When consistent, he adds a level of athleticism that's lacking at the moment. Michigan State doesn't have the high-flying alley-oop threat it once had. Nor does it have the rebound-and-putback machine that complemented the front court so well, especially in Payne's absence.
Thus far, Matt Costello has provided a bit of help on the glass. He's scoring, but he doesn't pose the same type of threat as Dawson. Part of that is because they play different positions, but at the end of the day, they're both relied upon to clean up the boards and score.
Style is optional. Costello doesn't do it with finesse like Dawson. Nonetheless, he's expected to fill in for Dawson's production, which he does from time to time.
After an 11-point, 12-rebound night in Iowa City, Costello finished with six points, three rebounds and a pair of blocks vs. the Hoyas. He's not 16 and 8 like Payne—not even close—but he could be 10 and 8.
At 6'9" and 250 pounds, nearly identical to Costello, Alex Gauna has to help lead or get out of the way. His two- and four-point offerings are mere grains of sand in an hourglass. Averaging 8.4 minutes per game, he's failed to prove worthy of more time on the floor.
Despite a .625 field-goal percentage, Gauna's shot selection tends to be questionable. He should be able to get the bunnies in the paint, but even those are difficult for the redshirt sophomore.
Izzo needs Dawson back sooner than the anticipated five-week return.
Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal recently revealed a timetable for Dawson's rehab:
Izzo also said on @DrivewithJack Branden Dawson can start working out a week from today. You can read this on ESPN Friday as breaking news.— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) January 29, 2014
Alvin Ellis pushes with each shift. He's gaining minutes and praise.
As they stand, Ellis looks like the faster learner. He's scoring late in games and kicking up the energy levels when Michigan State's backcourt begins to lag.
He won't do what Gary Harris does. But he can shoot.
He won't drive like Keith Appling. But he can get to the basket.
If anything, Ellis' 12-point showing against Michigan was a breath of fresh air. The 80-75 setback at the Breslin Center was bittersweet, but Izzo should have been relatively happy with his frosh's effort.
As the guards attempt to recover, Ellis delivers strong minutes. With two points in nine minutes, he didn't do much against the Hoyas. However, he hit both of his shots from the line, grabbed a pair of rebounds and had a steal.
He's easing into the role. Izzo has to deepen his guard pool, and if Trice isn't going to cut it, he must make sure someone else is ready to step forward.
Izzo says out of bench players, Alvin Ellis III impressed him most against Michigan. Says Ellis will be a very good player here.— State News Sports (@thesnews_sports) January 27, 2014
As for Schilling, he's just not prepared for the brutal elbows, hipchecks and forearm kisses doled out in the Big Ten. Developing a mean streak would benefit the youngster.
He needs to have a talk with Derrick Nix. That'll teach him.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81