Why It's Too Soon to Take Michigan State Out of the National Title Picture

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreBRCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 4, 2014

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Some crazy stuff is going to happen this month. The national title conversation is as crowded as it has been in the last 25 years. You can count the contenders on not one hand, not two, but probably three.

And there's one team that some might be ready to bail on, but that we should absolutely not leave out: Michigan State.

You remember Michigan State, right? The team that should have been preseason No. 1.

The Spartans have lost six of their last 10. They've lost two straight, the latest of which was at home against a team (Illinois) that isn't even holding out hope of fielding an offer to the dance.

But here's what was more important than Saturday's result: Tom Izzo, for the first time since Jan. 7, had his entire roster available.

That roster, full of upperclassmen and two future first-round picks, looked every bit the best team in the country back in November and through early January.

But the Spartans, right now, aren't even close to No. 1...or are they?

Injuries have come to define this season, and Izzo's best four players (Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne) have missed a combined 23 games. Playing without those guys was hard. Getting them back to what they were has been even harder. 

"Yeah, we're searching for an identity," Izzo said during Monday's Big Ten teleconference.

"Searching" is the perfect word for the Spartans right now. They'd been searching for health. Now they're searching for their former selves.

And what might be hard to fathom, even for Michigan State fans, is that this team is not far off.

If Izzo could sprinkle some of his magical March pixie dust, he may only need it for one guy. 

Mar 1, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Keith Appling (11) brings the ball up court against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the 2nd half of a game at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Illinois won 53-46. Mandatory Credit: M
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

That one guy is Appling, who just so happens to be the most important piece to the puzzle. For the Spartans to be at their best, Appling has to be right. 

And he's not right. 

Since the senior point guard returned from his wrist injury on Feb. 3 against Nebraska, he's averaged 3.5 points, 4.0 assists and 3.0 turnovers in those four games, three of which Michigan State has lost. 

And here's the most telling stat: In Appling's first 22 games this season, he averaged 10.7 shot attempts; in the last four, he's averaged three.

Not only is Appling not shooting well—0-of-3 from distance and 2-of-8 at the free-throw line since his return—but his confidence is so low that he's rarely attacking.

"There's always that thing of someone trying to do too much, but I'm more worried the other way," Izzo said. "I'm more worried of our guys sitting back—Keith not penetrating as much because maybe he's a little worried about the wrist and not penetrating as much because he's going to have to shoot the ball."

It's not fair to put it all on Appling, especially considering Michigan State's defense as of late. But everything else that made this team great, at least in spurts, is there.

  • Harris is playing as well as he has all season, shooting with confidence from deep and also attacking the rim. He's averaging 21.7 points over his last three games and has made 15 of his last 32 threes.
  • When Payne has been aggressive, he's had some great performances since returning from his injury, scoring 20-plus points three times over seven games.
  • Dawson moved and rebounded well (seven boards in 25 minutes) in his return on Saturday. 

But without Appling attacking, defenses can key in on Payne. Without Appling attacking, Harris gets less open looks and too much put on his shoulders. Without Appling attacking, Dawson has less opportunities for putbacks. And without Appling attacking, the Spartans have been more turnover-prone because it forces other guys to try to create instead.

The Spartans turned it over on 16.7 percent of their possessions before Appling sat out with the wrist injury, and they've turned it over on 20.9 percent of possessions since his return, per KenPom.com (subscription required).

"We've got to get Keith's head back on where he's feeling comfortable and confident," Izzo said.

Izzo talks about the other things his team needs to do—like defend and play with energy—but if Appling is right, those other things start to take care of themselves, and that's why the coach keeps coming back to his point guard.

So is Sparty doomed if Appling never gets his mojo back? Probably so.

But do not simply count out the Spartans because of their recent losses. These types of struggles, whether injury-related or a team just going in a funk, happen every single year to teams that end up in the Final Four.

Mar 1, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo talks to guard/forward Branden Dawson (22) during the 2nd half of a game against Illinois Fighting Illini at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Illinois won 53-46. Mandatory
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Syracuse lost seven of its final 12 regular-season games and ended up in the Final Four. In 2012, Louisville's Final Four team lost four of six down the stretch and five of seven earlier on. In 2011, the eventual national champions (Connecticut) lost seven of 11 to end the regular season.

Even Izzo's most successful teams have stumbled. His only title team lost three of five at one point, including a loss to Wright State, and his last Final Four team, in 2010, lost four of six in February.

These things happen, and sometimes they happen at what seems like the worst time.

"I think this is a veteran enough team to understand what we've gone through, and yet we've got to get it back," Izzo said. "We've got to put the pedal to the medal a little bit, getting it back a little quicker than you normally have to do when you have these kind of injuries."

If Appling is able to figure it out, Izzo could end up winning his second title. This team, when right, is that good. And if he doesn't, this will be one of the most disappointing finishes of Izzo's career—one that everyone in East Lansing will look back on and think "what might have been." 


C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR. 


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