The basketball gods don't want Michigan State to win a national title.
That much is abundantly clear.
With a lightning bolt from the Mt. Olympus of College Hoops, the hardwood's higher powers have taken every available opportunity to sting the Spartans, who not only fight opponents, but sprained feet, dislocated shoulders, bad ankles and bum wrists.
But the show must go on, and that's certainly going to be the message preached this week by coach Tom Izzo, who will face another challenge in the upcoming stretch as senior point guard Keith Appling recovers from an injured shooting (right)hand/wrist.
Michigan State certainly could have used something from its senior leader Sunday vs. Wisconsin. Had Appling been available, it's possible that the No. 9-ranked Spartans (20-3, 9-2) could have escaped the Kohl Center in Madison with a victory.
Instead, Traevon Jackson hit a game-winner with just seconds to play, resulting in a 60-58 edge for the Badgers.
Would the tables have been turned with Appling? Maybe. He's an All-American-caliber, Big Ten POTY-hopeful. Sure, he could have done something to boost his teammates.
But Gary Harris shot 2-for-19, and even with Appling, that's a death knell for the Spartans.
He played. Appling didn't.
So yeah, about those injuries and excuses—none of them matter if a team can't execute. Luckily for Izzo, his team can do that, it just hasn't done so on a consistent basis this season.
That being said, the Spartans' run has been fairly impressive, given the circumstances. Tied with Michigan, they're still atop the Big Ten standings and considered a threat to make a run in March.
The popular conversation is "how good will MSU be when healthy?" When? If? Who knows?
But Izzo has enough to survive, and despite losing a tough one on the road, he can maintain a little sanity while Appling—and Branden Dawson, who is about two weeks from returning—recovers.
Payne is Back, That Helps
Don't tell Payne that he was injured. That very mention could throw him off his game, and Michigan State can't afford any more shots to the body.
Payne is focused and doesn't need to be reminded that he's hopping around on a faulty right foot.
A gutsy performance, he returned to true form with 24 points against the Badgers. However, six turnovers and just four rebounds tarnished the points spree to an extent.
He's still not "there," but he's "here"—if that makes sense.
If nothing else, having Payne in the lineup is a mental advantage for a team that's searching for more from Matt Costello, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling, whom stand to benefit from playing beside one of the elite bigs of the Izzo era.
Appling is a high-octane scorer. When properly fueled, Payne can fill stat lines, too.
Upside: Payne rebounds. Michigan State hasn't been doing so hot on the boards lately, ranking No. 4 on offense and No. 6 on defense. Although respectable, those marks aren't anywhere near the typical Izzo standard.
Signs of Better Guard Play
Minus Harris' performance, Spartans guards weren't horrible across the board Sunday. In one of his better overall games, Travis Trice scored 13 points, dished out two assists and nearly became the big man on campus.
Alvin Ellis, a true freshman, scored six points and and played quality defense for most of the second half—he's coming around, and that's a positive for a team in need of production from the backcourt.
With just four points, Denzel Valentine was a no-show in the scoring column. That's a problem. However, he led the team with nine rebounds. Invaluable, when put to good use, his skill set adds a smooth quality to the overall game flow.
Once he caps the errant passes and ill-advised shots, he'll develop into a truer asset for Izzo, who is known for getting the most out of his guards during the tourney.
Upside: Appling could have help come tournament time in March. And right now, it's all about looking ahead to March.
Done with Bucky
Sunday was the Spartans' lone meeting with Wisconsin this year, which is a good thing. For some reason, Ryan's teams always have Izzo's number. Win or lose, Ryan devises game plans that stall Izzo's teams' ability to run the floor.
Evident Sunday, the Badgers defense put the clamps on the cold-shooting, wanting-to-run Spartans, who struggled mightily for each basket.
Rankings and records don't mean a thing when Ryan and Izzo take center stage. Although they're on the outside looking in, the Badgers command respect—they can beat anyone, any day. That's the Big Ten.
Upside: Injured and beaten, Michigan State took Wisconsin down to the wire. With a favorable schedule ahead, the Spartans can turn their misfortune into prosperity—championship teams always have to deal with some sort of adversity, and Izzo is quite familiar with that song and dance.
The more he endures, the more powerful he and his team seem—Izzo isn't the type to crack under pressure. So, here's a word to the wise: Maintain composure until Izzo loses his mind...
...and then feel free to lose yours.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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