A soft upcoming schedule has Michigan State primed to climb the national rankings and move closer to securing Tom Izzo's eighth Big Ten championship. However, in order to capitalize, State must approach these contests with the same intensity that they would against the more prominent conference foes.
Its upcoming games feature home contests against Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska. Michigan State will also travel to face a plummeting Wisconsin squad on Feb. 9 and then visit Purdue on Feb. 20.
With the exception of their showdown in Madison against the Badgers, the Spartans will be heavily favored to prevail in all of the aforementioned contests.
In addition to this manageable stretch of games, All-Big Ten forward Adreian Payne should return from a foot injury. State has dreadfully needed his scoring abilities, as the team hasn't eclipsed 80 points in its last six contests. But he must err on the side of caution upon his return.
Payne and Michigan State will look to improve to 20-3 overall and 9-1 in the conference in Thursday's home contest against Penn State. Here is how the Spartans must approach their upcoming five-game stretch.
A lingering foot issue to the star forward has complicated Michigan State's season, which was only compounded when his frontcourt counterpart, Branden Dawson, hurt his hand.
But Payne is finally back. However, that doesn't mean he should dismiss his foot injury as something in the past because the Spartans will need his services moving forward.
Exhibit A: the Ohio State game. Payne wasn't scheduled to play against the Buckeyes but fought through his injury to help Michigan State hand the Buckeyes their first loss. However, he hasn't placed since, and that may be because he re-aggravated it in that contest.
His injury developed from plantar fasciitis to a sprain and has sidelined him for the last seven games.
Moving forward, Payne must be cautious with his playing style and the number of minutes he records if he wants to stay on the court. Luckily for Michigan State, it can afford to ease the senior forward back into his assumed role with time because of the mediocrity of many upcoming opponents.
State needs Payne's full health in order to meet its aspirations in late March and early April. Without his 16 points and nearly eight rebounds per game, it has struggled to generate points at a consistent rate.
For Payne, these upcoming games are significant, mainly so he can become reacquainted with game situations. But they pale in comparison to the postseason contests that the Spartans will need him for in order to advance in the NCAA tournament.
Take it slow.
All season long, Michigan State has dealt with injuries to every single key player. With forwards Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson sidelined for recent games, the onus has been on Keith Appling and Gary Harris to step up.
So far, they have. But it hasn't come without its bumps and bruises.
Lately, Appling has played through considerable pain. While he won't admit that he has, it is noticeable, and his numbers validate it. In his last four games, he is averaging just over 10 points on 31.8 percent shooting.
More revealing, however, are the minutes he has logged. The senior point guard has played 35 minutes or more in the team's last eight games.
Fortunately for Appling, he could see his playing time lessened if the Spartans handle these upcoming opponents. That will allow the floor general to recuperate, and he will have his senior running mate back, in Adreian Payne.
Likewise, Harris has been forced to log more minutes and handle the load offensively. However, he hasn't disappointed. The Big Ten's leading scorer has registered at least 20 points in four of his last five games. But even the indispensable Harris could use some much-needed rest.
While the Spartans should approach any five-game stretch in the Big Ten with serious fervor, they also need to conserve their bodies in the most winnable contests.
If there is anything we have learned about this Spartans team, it is that they can win with a variety of different lineups. With Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson out with injuries, Tom Izzo has experimented with distinct units, but he's usually opted to play small.
Now with Payne back, he can tinker with it even more.
Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine have proven their worth as defenders and rebounders. The two wings have combined to average nearly 10 rebounds per game in the last four contests, highlighted by Valentine's impressive 11-rebound performance last game against Georgetown.
Thus, with robust, athletic guards at his disposal, Izzo has more lineup flexibility. Payne's versatility will also allow for that, as he can play either block position and score in a multitude of ways.
If State plays to its potential in these forthcoming contests, then Izzo will have the freedom to test multiple lineups. Payne's return enables that.
Michigan State has dropped two of its last three games, and in both contests, its front court was exposed.
In the Michigan showdown, 15 of the Wolverines' 80 points came from second-chance opportunities. The Spartans were outrebounded by a team that was missing their main front court player, Mitch McGary.
And the issues were only magnified against Georgetown.
After his team's disappointing 64-60 loss to Georgetown, Tom Izzo commented that the Spartans were "manhandled" inside, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com. They were certainly outdone at what they do best, as the Hoyas outrebounded Michigan State 37-30, which ranked in the top 30 nationally in that category.
Clearly the absences of Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne are hurting the Spartans, but the team actually has showed sustained periods of competency without the two forwards in the lineup.
In order to address those problems, State must attack the glass. Even though the Spartans are entering a stretch of very winnable games, their hunger shouldn't change.
With Payne back, Sparty needs to return to its dominant self in the paint.
It's easy for successful teams to approach winnable games against lesser opponents with a lack of urgency. However, State can't afford to take any future opponents lightly, especially given their current conference standing.
Sparty is 8-1, but its in-state conference adversary is 9-1 and looking more formidable after a 29-point pounding against Nebraska. Sparty can't afford to let any of these games slip from its grasp.
Michigan State will have a host of "trap games" coming up. While the majority of the upcoming opponents aren't among the most highly regarded in the conference, some have already prevailed against good teams.
Penn State and Nebraska have already beaten Ohio State at home, and Northwestern upended Wisconsin in Madison. Needless to say, those are impressive victories in hostile environments.
All the Spartans can focus on is the schedule's next game with the hunger and respect that Tom Izzo teams frequently embody.