Michigan State Basketball: 5 Questions for Spartans' Home Stretch in B1G Play
Michigan State will finish its injury-plagued season on March 9 in Columbus. State's overall 22-6 record is impressive given its perpetual supply of injuries, but recently, Sparty's skeptical play has raised questions and concerns as it enters the regular season's home stretch.
Now, it's about the Spartans' lack of togetherness. It's about their nonexistent sense of urgency. It's about working to resume their once hard-nosed, disciplined style of play, which has fueled Tom Izzo's teams to seven Big Ten titles.
Branden Dawson's return will surely aid some of those recent pains. But the remaining schedule won't get any easier, as the Spartans will face Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State to conclude their Big Ten campaign.
These are their five burning questions as they close out the regular season.
How Healthy Will Keith Appling Be in the End?
Keith Appling's wrist clearly isn't right. The senior point guard's toughness is unquestioned, but right now, he seems to be a shell of his former self.
Initially, it seemed as if Appling's final regular season sporting a Spartans jersey was sadly coming to an end, but the floor general decided to fight through it. Since his return, through three games, he is averaging three points and has attempted only seven shots.
He has favored his left hand noticeably and can't put any pressure on his right one. And going up for ill-advised alley-oops, like the one in the Michigan game, will only complicate, and potentially terminate, Appling's final collegiate season.
If he does go down for good, State's title chances would probably vanish. Appling is Michigan State's leader, tone-setter and arguably most important player.
In the grand scheme of things, these waning regular-season games are only trivial in comparison to State's postseason aspirations. While it doesn't appear that Tom Izzo will shut him down until the Big Dance comes around, Appling must be cautious.
Will State Fix Its Defensive Issues?
In the recent Michigan game, the Spartans were constantly outmatched by Michigan's size and talent on the perimeter. Once Nik Stauskas got going, he didn't stop.
And nothing State did worked.
At one point, Stauskas registered 19 points in 12 second-half minutes and consistently drained perimeter shots over the smaller Appling. What Sparty failed to do was make the proper adjustments and, later, make the correct rotations as Michigan finished multiple open layups in the second half.
The most revealing statistic? State shot 54 percent from the floor and still lost by nine points.
Customarily, Izzo's teams buckle down. They are normally disciplined and work in unison to shut down opponents nearly every possession. However, their recent inconsistency on the defensive end has raised issues and even led Izzo to title them as an "offensive team."
Dawson's absence certainly hasn't helped. But Sparty has displayed its defensive capabilities this season, proving that it can contain high-octane offenses, such as Iowa, without Dawson or Adreian Payne available.
Now, it's a teamwide issue that must be rectified, and it must return to its previous form.
Which Branden Dawson Will We See?
Dawson's return will finally mean that Michigan State will return to its full lineup, but it doesn't guarantee that all of its problems will be solved.
For Dawson, while he's been on the court, his season has been very sporadic. From his dominant double-doubles to his frequent disappearances, his 2013-14 campaign has been a conflicting one.
Additionally, Dawson's emotional states have varied greatly. His very reason for being sidelined evidences that, considering that he broke his hand by slamming it down on a table during a film session.
But when he's tuned in, Dawson is Sparty's difference-maker. No other player on Izzo's roster possesses the same physical ability, which enables Dawson to guard several positions on the floor.
Hopefully, State will return that difference-maker. If Dawson returns as the capable specimen that he has sporadically shown, then he could be that momentum-changing player who could fuel Michigan State to aspired heights in April.
But first, he must ease his way back, much like Appling should.
Will They Enter the Big Ten Tournament Fully Healthy?
All season, the story has been about injuries. Recently, while there are additional issues with the team's performance, regarding a lack of cohesiveness and limited defensive intensity, the squad's ultimate fate is mostly predicated around its ongoing health state.
When Michigan State is healthy, it is one of the favorites to win the Big Dance. The country was put on notice after Sparty handled Kentucky in an early-season tilt.
But all season, it has dealt with injuries and been forced to play several lineups together. Ultimately, that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as more players earned valuable experience and distinct lineups have been experimented. Either way, State will need every key Spartan available to make that aspired tournament run.
And that could happen. For the first time in multiple months, Michigan State is scheduled to return its full lineup as of this week.
However, as frustrated Spartan fans have experienced all season, it is unknown how long that will remain, especially given the state of Appling's injured wrist and the obscurity of Dawson's hand.
Whether State wins its final three regular-season games or not, it will be encouraging if it enters the conference tournament with a clean bill of health.
Will They String Together Consistent Efforts?
Through their last 10 games, the Spartans have alternated wins and losses. One game they are setting school records, and another they are losing home contests to lesser-talented teams. Many times they show glimpses of a motivated, championship-caliber team, but at others resemble an uninspired squad.
Consistency is definitely an issue.
Michigan State has been unable to string together consecutive winning efforts after winning 18 of its first 19 games. Given, injuries have certainly inhibited the team's capabilities, and the inevitable highs and lows of enduring the Big Ten gauntlet are expected. But at the moment, Sparty has failed to turn in consistent efforts on a game-to-game basis.
Returning Dawson and allowing Appling to heal will surely help. And despite all of the questions circulating around Michigan State, it is still 22-6. It is still in second place in one of the nation's best conferences.
It has accomplished that with a short-handed team for almost the entire season. Izzo and his team will find a way, just as they always have, but first they must focus on establishing consistency.