Night Line: In Typical Izzo Fashion, Sparty Quietly Humming AlongPosted by BHayes on January 31st, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
In many ways, keep moving along — there is not a whole lot to see here. February is beginning, the Michigan State Spartans are near the top of the Big Ten, and March expectations are high in East Lansing. Per usual, Tom Izzo’s crew has arrived at its current position with little pomp or flair, again embracing a gritty, determined approach that has come to define the Green and White. Perhaps the familiarity of the exercise is why the Spartans have largely flown under the radar this season, a lack of attention surely aided by playing in a conference loaded with Top 25 teams. Either way, it’s taken more than Tom Izzo and the Michigan State brand to answer all those questions that surrounded Sparty back in November, and if you are looking for reasons why this has become yet another vintage Izzo team, the continued development of a pair of juniors would be a good place to start.
Back in November, if you asked Tom Izzo which of his players needed to be great for his team to meet or exceed expectations, it would have taken him all of 0.2 seconds to tell you that player was Keith Appling. The former McDonald’s All-American had a nice sophomore season a year ago, but with senior leader Draymond Green’s eligibility expiring, the onus fell on the normally reserved Appling to take the reins of this group of Spartans. And while his statistical profile suggests that Appling is producing at a similar rate to a year ago, the junior has done exactly what Izzo needed him to do – take control of this team. Appling did it all the way back in November, when he took over a close game late to help hand Kansas what is still their only loss of the year. He did it again this evening, coming up with all the key plays down the stretch, the most emphatic of which occurred when he split a double-team then delivered a perfect lob to teammate Branden Dawson for a resounding dunk. But more importantly, in between that victory over KU and the defeat of the Illini tonight, there has been little doubt as to who is running this Michigan State team – an important answer to a question that lingered all summer in East Lansing.
Appling’s development was a near necessity, but classmate Adreian Payne’s improved play has to feel like something of a bonus for Tom Izzo. Payne was good for seven points and four rebounds a game off the bench a year ago, but he has upped those averages to nine and seven, respectively, in the process earning a spot in the starting five. The 6’10” junior has been a steady defensive presence for Sparty, his shot-blocking coming in handy on a team that only has one other regular over 6’6”. And if somehow Payne’s increased contributions haven’t been a surprise to Izzo and company, his recently discovered three-point shooting prowess most certainly is. After going 1-of-3 from distance in his first two seasons in East Lansing, Payne is 7-of-11 from beyond the stripe this season. Michigan State won’t be counting on the threes to keep falling for the big man, but they are suddenly counting on him; Payne has logged 30+ minutes in four straight games, and he and Appling each spent a team-high 38 minutes on the floor this evening.
Like so many past Izzo clubs, these Spartans are built to stop you on the defensive end, and despite a relative lack of size, clean up the backboards. Their defense is currently rated the third most efficient in the country per Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and anyone who has watched five minutes of Michigan State basketball knows exactly why. So while players like Payne and Appling have needed to emerge for the winning tradition to continue for Sparty, that “ho-hum Michigan State is 18-4” air that surrounds these Spartans largely exists because of the man on the sideline. Quite simply, Izzo continues to mean winning in East Lansing.