Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Biggest Concerns for the Postseason
Well, it’s March, and you know what that means—“this is Tom Izzo’s time of year” talk is in full swing.
However, his Michigan State Spartans clearly aren’t; Saturday’s embarrassing 53-46 home loss to Illinois was proof of that.
So was the loss to Nebraska, the sweeping at the hands of Michigan and, really, the entire season as a whole.
Once ranked in the Top Five, the Spartans (22-7, 11-5 Big Ten) are in a tailspin. They haven’t won back-to-back games since January—and unfortunately for Izzo, they aren’t showing many signs of turning up their level of intensity.
A Big Ten title is out of reach.
Does that spell doom for Michigan State? Maybe.
This slideshow will examine five concerns that the Spartans face as they prepare for the Month of Izzo.
Can Gary Harris Do It Himself?
Keith Appling is the Spartans' No. 1 take-over-game guy.
He's played that role well for the past two years. Much in the same way as Kalin Lucas, Appling has carved a reputation as a speedy, crafty scorer who can tilt the game in a hurry.
But he's hurt, and in all likelihood, he won't be 100 percent anytime soon. Those are the breaks, twists and turns that make sports so dramatic.
A senior point man is running on a half-empty tank and has a bum shooting hand. So, naturally, the next man up is Gary Harris, who is easily the more prolific scorer.
Averaging a team-high 17.9 points per game, the super sophomore is capable of scoring 25 or more with a few flicks of his wrist. But scoring points and taking over games are completely different.
He put up 19 against Illinois, but he missed a pair of three-pointers during the final six minutes (takeover time) that could have changed the tone of the contest. Michigan State lost, 53-46.
Hindsight, as they say, is always 20-20. It's neither fair to blame Harris for the loss nor to place the blame on a small group—the entire roster is at fault, even the coaches.
But it is fair to question Harris' ability to take over games.
He's a great producer, sure. But can he carry the load during college hoops' most challenging month of competition?
Really carry the load?
The Spartans better hope so; otherwise, their chances of reaching the Final Four (or making it to Round 2) are grim. If someone is to emerge as Izzo's go-to scorer, it must be Harris—late in games, not just double digits by halftime.
Upside: See Harris' shooting spree vs. Memphis in the 2013 tourney. As a freshman, he scored 23 points and nearly single-handedly dismantled the Tigers.
Will Keith Appling Help or Hurt?
It's difficult to view Keith Appling as dead weight...
So don't do that.
But he could end up becoming somewhat of a liability—he's a senior, so he wants to do what seniors do and lead his team. His wrist and hand, however, may not allow for Appling to be Appling.
As long as he's vocal, the Spartans should be OK. But again, that's never been his strong suit. As perhaps Izzo's most quiet point guard, Appling is the type of player who lets his play do the talking. At most, he has a month remaining of college hoops.
He may want to start yelling.
In his past four outings, he has scored 14 points—total, not per game.
That's not good.
However, he has 16 assists within that time span. But he also has 10 turnovers.
Appling must sharpen his edge if he's going to skate through March Madness.
Upside: It's Keith Appling. As a freshman, he scored nine points in the final 90 seconds of Michigan State's first-round tourney loss to UCLA.
Now a senior, it'll take a lot more than a flimsy wrist and banged-up hand to keep him from giving his everything and extending Izzo's four-year-player/Final Four tradition.
Are the Guards Ready?
Thus far, issues surrounding Harris and Appling have dominated, so that brings up the next topic: What about the rest of the guards?
Travis Trice, a junior, has experience and has played against enough quality competition during his career to prompt a little optimism. He knows what's on the line, and it's not the senior's streak—Izzo is watching one of his most talented teams throw away the season.
Despite being held scoreless in 20 minutes vs. Illinois, Trice has actually been one of the Spartans' lone bright spots lately. As funny as it sounds, outside of the Big 3 of Harris, Appling and Adreian Payne, Trice may be Michigan State's most important contributor.
Incredibly efficient against Purdue, he scored 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including hitting four of six from long range. Throw in six assists and a block, and that equals a praise-worthy showing, even if it was against a conference bottom-dweller.
Trice is taking a vocal lead, and that must be recognized as a positive for Izzo:
Guards make Michigan State basketball go round. Denzel Valentine, a streaky playmaker and scorer, will also be key in March. At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he has the ability to impose his size on smaller guards while also going head-to-head with bigger forwards and centers.
Passing, obviously, is his cup of tea. He's a great distributor, but he's been prone to turnovers this season. His average of 1.9 per game is the second-highest on the team.
Upside: Solid guard play in March has long been a trademark of Izzo ball.
Will Frontcourt Woes Continue?
Prior to Saturday's loss, it seemed as if Izzo wanted to send a message to Matt Costello:
Hello from Breslin Center. Gavin Schilling gets the start over Matt Costello, interesting switch-up.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) March 1, 2014
The 6'9" sophomore responded with two points and two boards in eight minutes. Schilling, though, played an even-keeled game, scoring seven points and grabbing three boards in 15 minutes.
When one doesn't, the other does—at least that's how it appears. But don't assume that Schilling has been golden, because that's not the case.
Izzo needs more from the frontcourt.
Just weeks ago, Costello was on top of a wave of momentum. With 11 points and 12 boards, he helped vault the Spartans to a gritty 70-69 overtime win over Iowa at Hawkeye-Carver Arena.
Since that breakout performance on Jan. 28, he's failed to record a double-double, and he's reached double-digit scoring once.
Redemption, and very soon, is necessary. His quote after the loss to Nebraska sums up the past month. He's No. 2 to Payne and a vital part to tournament success. He can't operate with a so-so mentality.
Upside: Payne is one of the country's elite big men, and he's a matchup nightmare for most opponents. That fact alone should get Michigan State through a round or two.
The Spartans haven't won back-to-back games since Jan. 20 and 28.
Forecasting six straight in The Big Dance is impossible.
Right now, getting two in a row would be a feat for Izzo's Spartans, who watched Michigan earn an outright conference crown this past weekend.
In order to cut down nets or at least reach the Final Four, a team must demonstrate an ability to get hot at just the right time. With their backs against the wall, the time is now for the Spartans.
Upside: Izzo's .722 winning percentage in March Madness.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81