Michigan State Basketball: 5 Ways Spartans Must Improve Before March
Get ready for something you've heard and read all season: Michigan State needs to get healthy.
While that much is a given for Tom Izzo's No. 9-ranked Spartans (20-4, 9-2), there are areas other than health that need a boost if this year is to end at the Final Four.
Perhaps the biggest deficiency, rebounding on a consistent basis has been a major issue that just won't go away. Not very Spartans-like, Michigan State has failed to assert itself on the offensive and defensive glass.
Seeing the anti-Izzos crash the boards on a game-by-game basis has been a low point of 2013-14. Something has to develop; otherwise there won't be any travel plans to the Dallas Metroplex this spring.
With health being the obvious No. 1 area to improve, further mention of it—or the lack of it—won't be necessary in this slideshow, which will dig deeper and highlight hinges that need greasing and bolts that need tightening.
Defending the 3
Overall, defensive strides have been made by most players on Izzo's roster.
Losing to Wisconsin via Traevon Jackson's last-second jumper was rough—and so was the barrage of three-balls that helped push the Badgers to a 60-58 victory in Madison.
Releasing at will, the Badgers shot 9-of-23 from beyond the arc. Of course, allowing a team to freely shoot from deep doesn't always result in a loss—Georgetown shot 2-of-12 in its 64-60 win over Michigan State—but it's not a good idea.
In terms of opponents' three-point percentage, Michigan State is a middle-of-the-road team in the Big Ten, allowing a 32 percent success rate.
See the full league stats here, via BigTen.org.
A closer look at other numbers makes this stat all the more important: Michigan State leads the Big Ten in opponent field-goal percentage (.386). A slight improvement on the perimeter would only aid that number.
Right now, Michigan State has the No. 5 scoring defense in the Big Ten. That may not seem all that impressive, but consider the following analysis: The Spartans give up 64 per game. Should they find a way to successfully defend the long ball, that average could dip to the mid- to high 50s, a mark good enough to take over the conference's No. 1 spot.
Every bit helps, especially for a team looking to tighten up before March. Taking a page from the football team, being known for having the Big Ten's best defense is great for an intimidation factor.
Use Alvin Ellis to Full Potential
Alvin Ellis doesn't really need to improve; he's been pretty solid as a true freshman.
In fact, his six points and 23 minutes vs. Wisconsin were more than enough to warrant more time on the floor.
Michigan State's guards aren't completely healthy—there goes the "h" word again—so it's important for Izzo to get the most out of his bench.
Thus far, Ellis has displayed an ability to score in bunches. That's a wonderful trait for a shooter to have, especially during tight games.
Consider him as the next Spartans marksman in training. If not for injuries overshadowing the team, most of the attention would probably be on Ellis' development.
Then again, the situation could be in reverse. Had Gary Harris and Keith Appling stayed healthy, Ellis could have remained on the sideline.
Nonetheless, Izzo can't afford not to give Ellis as many minutes as possible.
With a light stretch of Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue on the horizon, expect to see the freshman get upward of 15 minutes per game as Appling recovers.
Denzel Valentine Has to Be Old Denzel Valentine
Remember the wide-eyed former Lansing Everett star?
What happened to that player?
As a freshman in college, Denzel Valentine appeared to have a complete skill set that would make him a future star in the Big Ten.
Sure, it required fine tuning, but he was far from raw. This year, the Lansing-bred star-in-the-making hasn't been himself and, in some areas, appears to have regressed.
Ball-handling has been the No. 1 concern, as his six turnovers vs. Georgetown were certainly alarming. However, Valentine has bounced back, committing just two turnovers in the two games since the loss to the Hoyas.
That has to be applauded. Finding a happy medium is next for the 6'5" wingman.
Izzo has to find something positive to reinforce, rather than harping on Valentine for poor shot selection and errant passing.
Now, that's not to say that those topics shouldn't be addressed and corrected, but right now, telling a player what he's doing well may be more beneficial than telling him what he's doing wrong.
Valentine, along with others, has to find his confidence. When playing up to his usual standards, he's great everywhere—on the glass, on defense and in the lane. When in a lull, he's a sleeper, caught strolling down the floor and not taking care of the ball.
Nine-rebound and four-point Valentine is OK. That's who he was vs. Wisconsin. But 10-point, five-rebound and three-assist Valentine is better. Without Appling as a distributor, the Spartans will need Valentine to help maintain production from the point guard position.
Even-Keeled Gary Harris, Please Step Forward
The game against Wisconsin was more than a loss—it was a reminder of just how far the Spartans are from being complete.
Gary Harris shot 2-of-19.
Need it again? Gary Harris shot 2-of-19.
Michigan State lost by two points—think about that for a few seconds.
A better game from Harris would have helped. Even a 4-of-19 showing could have been enough to propel his team past the Badgers.
A healthy Keith Appling would have helped, too. But that's all what-if talk.
If anything, Michigan State learned that anything less than a full, honest effort won't get it done on the road (as if that needed to be repeated). That should be the lesson, not "Hey, we played poorly and only lost by two."
Again, all of this goes back to guard stability. Due to a thin pool of players, the guards have now become the catalysts.
Harris gives inside scoring while Branden Dawson rests his broken right hand.
Valentine has rebounded well in Payne's absence. He's picking up extra minutes to make up for Dawson.
Ellis can score a few buckets in a hurry, which helps without Appling's speedy scoring.
Travis Trice is coming off one of his better overall games, too.
It's all a domino effect. If Harris can lead the way, the guards shouldn't have a problem compensating for the loss of their senior captain.
Succumbing to pressure would be the wrong thing to do.
It'd be the easiest, but it'd be wrong.
Despite injuries and obstacles, the Spartans are in prime position to win the Big Ten.
A win behind conference leader Michigan, Michigan State must capitalize on its upcoming three-game gift. Let's face it, Izzo isn't going up against Big Ten heavies when he plays Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue.
Battle-tested, the Spartans outlasted the Payne-less period. They'll have to do the same without Appling, who should return by Feb. 23 (at Michigan).
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81