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Mental errors, turnovers, fouls, poor free-throw shooting and lax defense continue to keep Michigan State from reaching full-tilt.
Clear after Sunday’s 60-51 home loss to Nebraska, the No. 9-ranked Spartans (21-5, 10-3) are running along a jagged edge, and if prompt action isn’t taken, their road to March will only get bumpier.
Deep down, they’re one of the country’s most well-rounded teams.
When healthy and completely focused, Tom Izzo’s group performs as college basketball’s obvious No. 1.
Efforts such as the one put forth against the Huskers make the Spartans appear as pretenders, not contenders.
Somewhere between the injuries and setbacks sits a team ready for the Final Four. But as the story goes, it’s all about finding a way to piece it all together.
Tied with Michigan for first in the Big Ten, Michigan State has proved to be a resilient bunch. Although painfully inconsistent, Izzo’s team continues to give it the “old college try.”
This slideshow will examine five of the biggest lessons that the Spartans have taught us thus far.
Keith Appling Really Needs a Final Four
Final Four or not, Keith Appling will go down as a program great.
But his legacy would be better served with a trip to the national semis.
As a senior, it's his duty to do everything possible to ensure that trip for his teammates, not to mention for Izzo, who's seen each one of his four-year players make it to college hoops' promised land.
The former Detroit Pershing sensation entered East Lansing as a thin shooting guard with something to prove; that "something" was his ability to adapt to change.
Accustomed to being the No. 1 scoring option, the 6'1", 180-pounder had to move to point guard, taking over the coveted role from then-star Kalin Lucas.
He's struggled along the way, but Appling has proved to be a worthy "quarterback," averaging a career-best 4.9 assists per game, nearly 1.5 better than his previous averages.
Appling has changed his game for the betterment of Spartans basketball. Playing the 1 for Izzo entails taking a beating each game, which is a lot different that the more glamorous role of shooting guard. An aggressive approach has brought upon years of abuse for Appling, who hadn't missed a game until this season.
We've learned that Appling has a lot of Mateen Cleaves running through his veins; he doesn't have a problem hobbling along if it gives his team a better chance to win.
We've learned that he's given everything imaginable to Izzo. And after four years, we've learned that he's added to the list of qualifications for future point men.
The university should consider giving him an honorary master's in Big Ten PG.
There Will Be Competition for PG in 2014-15
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It's a little early to think of the post-Appling era, but it's just around the corner.
That being said, the Spartans may have recruited the next Cleaves, Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn of Sunrise Christian in Wichita, who just may be the guy to spearhead a title run.
But there's a "but"...
Rarely, if ever, does a freshman guard take on a permanent role for Izzo. It'd be a stretch to expect Nairn to lead the way on Day 1. He'll likely be eased into the rotation, not thrown into the fire, saved for later pushes into March.
What about 2014-15?
Trice will be a senior next year, instantly giving him cred, not to mention dibs on the position. While not as athletic as his predecessors, Trice has the intelligence to guide the ship in the right direction.
The 6'0", 170-pounder won't give Izzo 15 or 20 points a game (although he's done so), but he'll certainly be a No. 1 option for ball security.
Take Trice's showings during the past few weeks into account: He has just four turnovers in the month of February, a great sign considering the Spartans love to give away the ball (they had 11 turnovers Sunday vs. Nebraska's five).
With closer examination, his efficiency becomes clearer.
The following tweet from Spartan Radio's Adam Ruff was posted prior to Sunday's loss to the Huskers, so add 24 minutes and one turnover into the equation (104 minutes total). As of Feb. 16, he had a TO/a ratio of 2.4-1.
Travis Trice has yet to commit a turnover in 84 minutes of filling in as the starting point guard for Keith Appling over the last 2+ games.— Adam Ruff (@Spartan_Radio) February 14, 2014
Izzo's Tough Love Never Goes Out of Style
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Izzo doesn't have to prove how much he cares for his players; his passion for the game and for developing student-athletes has been obvious for nearly two decades.
For some reason, Russell Byrd just hasn't lived up to expectations. He knows it. Fans know it. Izzo probably knows it.
Nearly a month ago, after an unsatisfactory film session, Branden Dawson, out of frustration, slammed his hand on a table...and broke it.
The literal bad break could keep him out of the lineup until March, forcing him to miss up to five weeks of action. Because of the ill-timed move, the junior forward faced a barrage of negative comments from Twitter users (they're so lovable and understanding).
Constructive criticism in necessary.
But the Spartans coach doesn't appreciate people downing players who give an honest effort. That's admirable. It's one thing to defend a lazy player, but sticking up for tough-luck cases such as Byrd and Dawson shows a fatherly quality that makes Izzo the ideal college coach.
In January, Izzo said the following about his coaching approach, via MLive.com's Gillian Van Stratt:
Note: Izzo specifically references his behavior after a 72-68 loss to Indiana, but the quote is a shining example of his coaching demeanor.
I got people all over me because I was upset about the thing. Personally, I really don't care. Not to be a jerk, but I know my team, and I know expectations are higher by all of you. But they aren't as high as mine are and all those fans that (think), 'You're a little too hard on them, a little too this, a little too that?' You know what? More is given, more is expected.
I just know over the years, to me, I know what it takes to win. I know when there's things that aren't done.
Forget the NBA, although Izzo certainly deserves a shot to coach at the highest level. But he was born and bred for the NCAA, so it's East Lansing "for life."
Adreian Payne Is What MSU Hoops Is All About
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Izzo's players have long been taught the ideals of becoming better men and student-athletes. Sure, they learn how to play ball. Some even go pro. But being coached by Izzo isn't just about the X's and O's on the court.
Granted, he probably would have had success with John Calipari or Thad Matta, but he chose Izzo and Michigan State.
Since then, he has become a fan favorite—just ask Lacey.
Payne's relationship with a youngster battling insurmountable odds has touched the Spartans in a way that hasn't been done by many. With a personal journey just as emotional and heroic, Payne has developed into a college-educated man—something he promised to his late grandmother.
From struggling to read to becoming an icon of Izzo ball, Payne has given Spartans fans a gift they'll cherish for years.
Four years aren't enough for some, but they allow enough time for fans to really connect with players. Izzo celebrates the four-year guy, and Payne is a four-year guy worth celebrating.
The growth of Adreian Payne and the fun it's been to watch a senior in his collegiate prime http://t.co/f0uzqIjls0— Eye on College BBall (@EyeOnCBB) December 22, 2013
Costello Is Bringing Back the Attitude
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Mentioning poor rebounding and a lack of punch is mandatory when discussing this year's team.
Typically rock-solid on the glass and robust in the paint, Michigan State, despite out-rebounding Nebraska, 39-36, has been pushed around by just about everyone, regardless of the outcome.
Matt Costello likes to hustle. Combine Trice's motor with the grit of Derrick Nix, and you'll have the player Costello is on the verge of becoming.
Learning from Payne has helped his development. The fact that he shows a willingness to absorb contact in the name of rebounds speaks volumes—the Spartans have lacked that sense of urgency all season.
Already displaying an understanding of the Big Ten's physical brand of play, he must now shift his focus toward becoming a more effective scorer. It seems as if two steps forward are followed by a step or two in the wrong direction.
During the Spartans' loss to Nebraska, Scout.com's Mike Wilson posted his thoughts about Costello:
Matt Costello with a nice little alley-oop to Appling for the layup, his first points in four games.— Mike Wilson (@MikeWScout) February 16, 2014
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.