Michigan State Appears Back on Track: Delaware Its Latest Test

Posted by Jonathan Batuello on March 20th, 2014

If you had said you were tired of hearing one phrase in the Big Ten this season, it likely would have revolved around Michigan State. It was repeated nearly every game: “When Michigan State is healthy, the Spartans are one of the best teams in the country.” Well, after an injury-plagued regular season, we finally got the chance to see what the Spartans can do at full strength in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. Two wins later over teams that came into Indianapolis in the conversations as potential No. 1 seeds, America was fully back on board with the Spartans. As of this writing, Michigan State is considered the favorite to make it to the Final Four out of the East region and one of a handful of teams considered likeliest to win it all. Even President Obama is picking the Spartans. The question, of course, is whether the Big Ten Tournament revealed the true answer to that original statement, and whether Sparty’s opening round game against Delaware today is just the first step on its way to Arlington.

The Spartans may finally be healthy but Michigan State needs Keith Appling to play back to his pre-injury level for a deep March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

The Spartans may finally be healthy but Michigan State needs Keith Appling to play back to his pre-injury level for a deep March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

Perhaps the best sign that Michigan State is back to an elite level is that it seemed to get better as the Big Ten Tournament went along. Over the Spartans’ three games, it appeared that they were slowly but surely getting back on track. In its first game against Northwestern, it methodically took care of business against an outmatched Wildcats team. In the semifinal against Wisconsin, Michigan State showed its offensive flair by shooting 53.8 percent from three and 56.9 percent overall. Most notably was its performance in the championship game against Michigan, as Sparty held the one of the nation’s best offenses to 31 percent shooting and 26 percent from three-point range. This is a sea change for a team that had been struggling defensively prior to the return of Dawson.

The question on everyone’s minds now is whether this will translate to the NCAA Tournament. While the Spartans may be nominally back to full strength, Keith Appling has not returned to his pre-injury form. Michigan State is good enough to beat Delaware (and maybe its next-round opponent) without Appling playing his best basketball, but this could be a big issue when it comes to the second weekend and beyond. While Michigan State is an efficient offensive team with everyone healthy and becoming better defensively, it still has had issues with turnovers. Case in point was its last regular season game against Ohio State where the Spartans committed 16 turnovers in a loss (MSU ranked 89th on the season). Appling is the key to fixing this problem, and the Spartans will absolutely need him to pick up his play if they expect to keep Tom Izzo’s streak of a Final Four for every graduating class intact.

For today’s game against Delaware, the turnover battle will be key to watch. The Blue Hens rank ninth in the NCAA in turnovers per game, and although Michigan State loves to run, it will have to do so off of rebounds, where it has a huge advantage. Delaware only has one player — Carl Baptiste —  taller than 6’7″ on its entire roster and ranks 242nd in offensive rebounding percentage. This means that Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Matt Costello should get plenty of touches inside and be able to pull down rebounds to start the break. Realistically, if the Spartans play well they should be fine regardless of the turnover issue, but this Delaware team has shown a propensity to play several top teams close. It lost to Villanova by only four and Ohio State by 12 in Columbus this season. Michigan State should come out on top using its superior size and speed, but the real question is whether the Spartans will continue to gel with another week of practice and games under their belt?

Jonathan Batuello (61 Posts)

Jonathan Batuello is a journalist working out of Indiana and Big Ten correspondent for Rush the Court. Follow his Twitter account (@jcbatuello) for Big Ten basketball, Indiana high school sports and how to cope with losing at fantasy football.

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