Adreian Payne

Is Michigan State’s inability to get healthy a concern?

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If Michigan State can find some way to get themselves to stay healthy for three weeks in March, I’m not sure there is anyone in the country that would be more likely to win an NCAA title.

Here’s how I look at it: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson are as talented as any top four in the country. They’re also as experienced as any top four in the country. Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski provide enough depth and balance and versatility that the Spartans not only have role players to plug in at certain spots in certain situations, they can matchup with teams that give different looks.

All of that comes before the Tom Izzo factor. With all due respect to the likes of Bill Self, Sean Miller, Mike Krzyzewski, Thad Matta and every other superstar coach out there, I’m not sure there is a coach in the country I want running my team in a win-or-go-home game than Izzo.

Combine all of that, and what you get is a team that, if healthy, will look really, really scary come March.

But that ‘if’ is looking bigger and bigger by the game.

Early in the season, it seemed like these were just nagging injuries that Michigan State had to work their way through. Gary Harris’ ankle. Matt Costello’s mono. Adreian Payne’s plantar fasciitis. Travis Trice has missed time. Even Appling has been banged up, as he spent much of last night noticeably favoring his right wrist.

The biggest concern is Payne, who has missed the last four games and may not play against Michigan on Saturday as he deals with a sprained foot.

“Payne is a day-to-day deal,” Izzo told reporters on Tuesday night. “He’s run twice. I don’t know (if he’ll play versus U-M). I don’t know. I don’t think he’s playing, right now. He wants to play. I got the toughest coaching decision in my life to make as far that goes. Doctors have done their job, everybody else has done theirs.”

“Me and him are going to sit down and talk about pain and talk about whether it would be right or it would be wrong.”

Missing Payne hurts the Spartans. He can score in the post, he can rebound the ball, and he can step out and hit a three. He’s an all-american big man, and with all due respect to Costello and Kaminski, it’s a sizeable dropoff when Payne’s out of the game.

Izzo is playing this the right way. Harris had a banged up shoulder as a freshman and Izzo let him play through the pain, diminishing his effectiveness. He’s doing everything he can to ensure that his team will be at full strength come March.

Whether or not they get there — and can stay there — is a different story.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.