Michigan State Basketball: Report Card for Spartans Midway Through Big Ten Play

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: Report Card for Spartans Midway Through Big Ten Play

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Despite their recent hiccup in Madison Square Garden, the Michigan State Spartans have composed another season that has them threatening for the Big Ten title. With a perpetual overhaul of injuries, Tom Izzo has maximized the remaining potential out of the waning available players. At the midway point of the Big Ten, their overall report card grade is an A-.

    However, their recent trend of play is concerning. The Spartans have lost two out of three and look increasingly unimpressive.

    Keith Appling continues to fight through obvious pain, Gary Harris isn't getting any offensive help and their bench play is too inconsistent to rely on.

    But collectively, the Spartans have weathered the storm and played well enough to earn a 19-3 record. They have marquee wins over Kentucky, Ohio State and Iowa and reside atop of the conference standings.

    An A- grade is fitting for a team that has somehow succeeded despite the perverse circumstances surrounding it. 

    This slideshow features the categories that were considered when awarding Sparty with an A- grade.


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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Michigan State is one of the few units in the country that boasts three outstanding individual scorers, all of whom retain distinct skill sets. 

    Keith Appling has always beat opponents with his quickness, but now he's added a consistent three-point shot. Meanwhile, Gary Harris is arguably the best scorer in the Big Ten. The sophomore 2-guard kills opponents with deception, skill and explosion to the hoop. His 18.4 points place him atop the Big Ten scoring charts.

    Much like Appling, Adreian Payne evolved his game and added an accurate long-range jumper to his repertoire. The 6'10" Payne is shooting nearly 44 percent behind the three-point line and makes over 80 percent of his free throws.

    The trio of scorers is complemented with another explosive weapon in Branden Dawson. Even despite the random lapses and whirlwind of emotions, Dawson has averaged 10.2 points and almost nine boards per game. He and Payne comprise one of the nation's most athletic and talented front courts, which dominates opposing teams on the glass.

    But that's when they are healthy.

    Since their injuries, the Spartans have been inconsistent. Keith Appling hasn't shot over 50 percent since Payne was in the lineup. Conversely, Gary Harris has shouldered the offensive load, registering at least 20 points in four of the team's last five games.

    While Harris has stepped up, the rest of the team has had difficulty. For every surprising offensive outburst that one of the complementary players provides, that player has seemingly followed it with a disappointing performance.

    Travis Trice has multiple goose eggs in the scoring column but has provided brief scoring spurts. Matt Costello had a career game against Iowa, only to follow it up with a dull six-point, three-rebound performance against Georgetown. Additionally, Kenny Kaminski has cooled down from his early-season shooting clinic.

    The team performed well offensively in the initial contests after Payne's injury. However, with Dawson out as well, State has struggled recently. Harris isn't getting much help from his teammates, and Keith Appling's overuse has the point guard fatigued and banged up.

    But remember, they're 19-3 for a reason. Michigan State ranks sixth in the country with over 17.3 assists per game and scores nearly 79 points per contest.

    The recent offensive decline is concerning, but the Spartans have played admirably on the offensive end for the great majority of the season.

    Grade: B+


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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    State's defense is what has kept them in big games. With their offensive potential hindered because of the injuries to Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, Tom Izzo's club has played remarkably on the defensive end.

    The Iowa game serves as a paradigm. The Spartans held a high-octane Iowa team scoreless for nearly 15 minutes to secure a huge win on the road. The Hawkeyes were accustomed to scoring in the high 80s, but they only registered 69.

    And that was with five extra minutes.

    Sparty has given up 80 points once the entire season, and even that was due to the excess of fouls that they gave to Michigan in hopes of staging a comeback. The Spartans only allow 64.9 points per game on 38.2 percent shooting, which ranks 14th in the country.

    They have the quickness on the perimeter to disrupt opposing guards. They have the rim-protectors and athleticism in the post. They have it all, but most importantly, are extremely disciplined. The Spartans rarely miss defensive assignments or allow opposing offenses to capitalize with second-chance opportunities.

    Despite the Spartans' plethora of offensive ability, their defense has been their calling card. They are among the stingiest groups in the country, and that is a testament to their veteran players and Izzo's coaching.

    Grade: A

Team Chemistry

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    Nam Huh/Associated Press

    Chemistry. Continuity. Togetherness.

    Those are the traits that Tom Izzo-coached teams personify every season. They have consistently propelled the Spartans to NCAA tournament runs and Big Ten championships, and those characteristics are prevalent with this year's team as well.

    Often times, teams with a generous supply of offensive talent have individual egos. However, this squad has showed no signs of selfishness or self-conceit.

    If there is any statistic to validate their chemistry and unselfishness, it's that these Spartans rank sixth in the country in assists per game. Obviously, players with fantastic vision and scoring ability are needed to rank highly in that phase, but it requires a considerable amount of unselfishness as well.

    That chemistry has fueled Michigan State to numerous victories in tough environments. They have survived two overtime games and have prevailed in contests against Kentucky, Indiana, Texas and Iowa, all of which weren't played in East Lansing.

    That chemistry will only benefit State in the Big Dance, as it has in the past.

    Grade: A+

Bench Play

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Michigan State's bench play seems to vary from game to game. Tom Izzo has started several different lineups because of the constant string of injuries.

    The collective play from the Spartans' bench has fluctuated. Initially, it prospered with complementary guys like Kenny Kaminski, Denzel Valentine and Travis Tryce contributing in different ways.

    For example, Kenny Kaminski went on a seven-game stretch of shooting 14-of-21 from behind the arch. He was seemingly automatic. But in a recent three-game stretch, he shot 1-of-10, which can perhaps be explained because he was given a more prominent role. The sharpshooter did just make three out of six against Georgetown, so his fortunes may be turning.

    Travis Tryce is another three-point shooter whose season has been mixed with highs and lows. His scoring outputs from the five most recent games read as follows: zero, 10, three, 10 and zero. However, he does have games of 15, 13 and 12 points. Overall, he is shooting a high 42.2 percent from three, but he has been far too inconsistent for being one of the bench's key contributors.

    Additionally, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling have failed to produce much of anything. Each player has provided flashes, yet haven't been able to consistently impact a game.

    The bench supplied 14 of the team's 60 points in its last contest against Georgetown. While it's understandable that the bench play may decline with two starters out, the complementary players just aren't providing what they are capable of.

    Grade: C+

Road and Neutral Site Performances

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Michigan State is an impressive 6-0 on the road and 4-1 at neutral sites this season.

    In its first game at a neutral site, the Spartans outplayed a highly touted Kentucky team in the Champions Classic. That contest highlighted the Spartans on a national stage and asserted them as one of the premier teams in the country.

    They also upended Virginia Tech by 19 and beat Oklahoma 87-76 to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

    Additionally, Sparty has beaten Indiana, Illinois and Iowa in their home arenas, all of which are difficult places to play. 

    If it wasn't for their one bad loss of the season to Georgetown in New York City, the Spartans would have a perfect record away from home. However, Michigan State looked flat and couldn't generate enough offense to overpower the Hoyas.

    What makes its away record so impressive is the fact that State won the majority of those games without Branden Dawson or Adreian Payne available. That just evidences what great coaching and unique continuity the Spartans have.

    That ability to win away from home will be conducive to success in the Big Dance.

    Grade: A