Will Michigan State Ever be the Team We Thought It Could Be?Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 3rd, 2014
Branden Dawson’s return on Saturday was supposed to be the first positive step towards a full-strength resurgence for Michigan State, a “welcome back” moment for a bona-fide National Championship contender. Instead, the Spartans looked more like a fledgling team with a disorganized collection of talent than a veteran bunch ready to make a deep March run. “We didn’t play like a Michigan State team is supposed to play,” Tom Izzo said after the 53-46 home loss to Illinois. But with only a handful of games remaining before the stakes are significantly raised, the question has suddenly become two-fold for Izzo and his struggling group: Will they hit their peak before it’s too late? And—perhaps more ominous—is their peak even as high as first thought?
Despite his noticeable rust on the offensive end, Dawson’s first game back was actually encouraging in a lot of ways for the Spartans. The athletic junior seemed just as aggressive on the glass and tenacious on defense as he did before suffering the broken hand that kept him out a month. In 25 minutes of action, Dawson was energetic and unafraid, pulling down a team-high four offensive rebounds to go along with a pair of steals and a blocked shot—all-around pretty good, considering the long absence. The larger, more glaring concern was the play of Keith Appling; only recently back from an injury himself (wrist), the point guard remains nowhere near the player he was before the affliction. The Appling of old would confidently (and accurately) launch from behind the arc, explosively attack the basket, and knock down free throws when he earned trips to the line. It’s the reason he scored in double figures for seven straight games earlier this season and was in the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year. But since his three-game hiatus in mid-February? The senior leader has attempted only three three-pointers, seldom penetrated the lane, and has gone just 2-for-8 from the charity stripe in 103 minutes of combined action. Among his misses were several potentially game-altering attempts against the Illini on Saturday that might have changed the outcome had they gone in. Whether it’s the lingering wrist injury or something else, Appling cannot continue to play at this level if the Spartans are going to make a run in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament—he’s simply too important, both as a scoring option and a facilitator, to remain a non-factor.
Yet the concerns for Michigan State extend far beyond Appling and perhaps allude to something even more disheartening for a team once pegged as Final Four favorites. While the seemingly never-ending string of injuries has allowed for a ‘wait-and-see’ narrative after each Spartan loss, recent outcomes—home defeats to middle-of-the-pack league opponents—beg a more serious question: What if it turns out the sum was less than its parts this whole time? After all, the loss to Illinois was the closest thing to fully healthy the team’s been in a long time, and a bulk of the issues—the “dysfunction,” as Izzo called it—was more the result of sloppy play from guys like Adreian Payne and Denzel Valentine than it was a consequence of attrition. The two starters combined for seven points and nine turnovers on Saturday, their sub-par efforts undermining a nice game from Gary Harris and forcing the sophomore guard to shoulder virtually all of the late-game offensive burden. When Harris can’t knock down shots or draw fouls in those situations, winning becomes unlikely. Numerous players will have to piece together solid performances at the same time—on a consistent basis—for Michigan State to find sustained success going forward. And for a club that’s failed to win back-to-back contests since mid-January, and which does not have a single player who has experienced a run past the Sweet Sixteen, finding that winning stride in time for Selection Sunday is not a foregone conclusion despite what everyone thought entering 2013-2014.
Of course, the outlook is not all doom and gloom. Dawson will substantially improve the team’s defense, and Appling might very well round into shape as he continues to log more minutes. If both of them return to their January form, Michigan State could regain its elite status in the coming weeks. And perhaps the loss to Illinois will serve as a much-needed “wake-up call” for an uncharacteristically sluggish unit: “Maybe a slap in the face was good, maybe it reminds me of 2005,” Izzo said afterwards, in his most optimistic post-game moment. Still, with March upon us and the inconsistent performances piling up, questions about the Spartans’ ability to coalesce in time for the Tournament—and whether its ceiling was ever has high as we thought—have become more pressing than ever.