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There's a flaw in the plan, and Michigan State's 79-70 loss Sunday to Michigan in Ann Arbor was proof of that.
Thus far, Tom Izzo's Spartans (22-6, 11-4) remain in the hunt for a Big Ten title. Thus far, they look like they'll be a formidable opponent—come health and March, of course.
Being swept by John Beilein's Wolverines showed the weaknesses of one of Izzo's most athletic teams. Jumping and running isn't the problem—pushing and shoving are, though.
Toughen up or fall behind—that's the way Michigan State can adhere to its original plan of muscling through one of college basketball's most physically challenging leagues.
Play as If Branden Dawson Won't Return
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At this point, the Spartans appear to be waiting for someone to save them.
At first, it was Adreian Payne, who missed seven games during the middle of the season. Despite playing well (5-2), Michigan State most certainly eagerly awaited the return of its big man. Things weren't "normal" without him.
That changed once Payne returned—temporarily—then Keith Appling fell victim to injury; a sore wrist remains a thorn in his side to this day.
Possibly a week away from returning, Branden Dawson would add energy to the defense, supply a boost to the offense and aid the rebound game on both ends. Due to inconsistent play and injury, it's easy to forget that he was among the Big Ten's top rebounders (8.9 RPG) before breaking his right hand.
Izzo needs someone to give an extra "umph." But he needs a healthy player to do it. He and his team can't afford to wait and see what happens once Dawson comes back.
Playing like he's done for the year would be the best way to approach the situation. By the time he's ready to play, the Spartans, in theory, would have corrected their issues—having Dawson would be the finishing touch.
With him or without, there isn't room for excuses.
Pay Attention to Beilein's Plan
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It's comparing apples to oranges, but still, Michigan's losses have impacted its season as much as injuries have hampered Izzo's plans.
Lost to the NBA, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are no longer Wolverines. Due to a back injury, Mitch McGary has missed nearly his entire sophomore year.
Somehow, the Wolverines forged ahead, beat three Top 10-ranked teams in a week (Jan. 18-25), swept Izzo and found a spot atop the Big Ten standings.
It wouldn't hurt Izzo to borrow from Beilein's book. Whatever the Michigan coach is doing works.
At this level of competition, toughness can often overcome the lack of athleticism. In the past, toughness has been a trademark of Spartans hoops. Today, it's a trait that Beilein's boys have down to a science—see Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, who came through Sunday during crunch time.
John Beilein (6-6) joins Bo Ryan (14-11) & Thad Matta (10-10) as the only Big Ten coaches not to have a losing record vs. Tom Izzo.— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) February 23, 2014
Stress 'Seniority' to Adreian Payne and Keith Appling
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Keith Appling and Adreian Payne's senior years were supposed to be different. The elder pair was supposed to be fully healthy and contend for No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten Player of the Year voting.
That won't be the case this year.
Injuries and lukewarm streaks have put a smudge on their final year at Michigan State. They'll each hold positions as greats of the Izzo era, even historically for the Spartans, but they're in danger of snapping another tradition in half.
One's already been broken.
Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first four-year MSU senior class under Tom Izzo to never beat Michigan at Crisler Arena.— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) February 23, 2014
There's a twist to this. It's not all Payne and Appling's fault. Misfortune and lackluster efforts from teammates have slowed progress.
For as great as they've been, it'd be a shame for Appling and Payne to miss out on Izzo's four-year player tradition of reaching the Final Four.
Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice Revisited
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The "what-ifs" surrounding Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine have been prevalent for a year.
Trice, a junior, should compete for the role of starting point guard next fall. Valentine, a sophomore, should be right there with Trice.
Each player has shown glimpses of "wow" since joining the Spartans.
Trice has put up 20 points (and high-teens) and demonstrated the ability to score in bunches. Sunday, Valentine laced a few passes that reminded the public why Izzo compared his passing to that of Magic Johnson.
Minus turnovers, Valentine's been on the way up for a couple of weeks. Despite losing to Michigan, he finished with a line of 13 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Trice and Valentine have the skills to serve as No. 1-like No. 2s behind Gary Harris and Keith Appling.
Win out (Easier Said Than Done)
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Three games remain, and that means the Spartans need a trio of wins to gain confidence heading into the postseason, which is key—just ask the 2011 UConn team, which won out to qualify for the tournament, and then won the national title.
|Opponent||Opponent Record *records and rankings were accurate as of Feb. 23, 2014|
|March 1 vs. Illinois||4-10 (15-12)|
|March 6 vs. No. 15 Iowa||8-5 (19-7)|
|March 9 at No. 24 Ohio State||9-6 (22-6)|
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81