We’ve been saying it for so long, it’s almost because second-nature: No. 13 Michigan State is good, but just wait until they get healthy.
And the party line won’t be any different after the Spartans lost to in-state rival No. 20 Michigan in Crisler Arena on Sunday afternoon.
Tom Izzo’s club jumped out to an early lead and had control of the game for much of the first half, but Nik Stauskas took over in the second half, scoring 21 of his 25 points after the break, leading the Wolverines to a 79-70 win. He and Caris LeVert, who scored 14 of his 23 points in the second half, sparked a game-changing, 17-4 run midway through the half.
The loss means that Sparty was swept by the Wolverines this season. It also dropped them a game behind Big Blue in the Big Ten standings with just four games left to play. The Wolverines don’t play another tournament team. Michigan State still have Iowa at home and a trip to Ohio State left on their schedule.
So long story short, this loss most likely cost the Spartans a Big Ten regular season title.
But the bigger issue is going to be whether or not this team can actually get back to playing their best basketball.
Adreian Payne and Gary Harris are ready to go. Harris has gotten past his ankle issue and Payne’s foot seems to be all better, which is why both have played like lottery picks in recent games. Branden Dawson has gotten the screws removed from his broken hand and Keith Appling has now played in the last three games. They are almost back to having a full roster available.
The problem, however, is whether or not the Spartans can get back to playing the kind of basketball they were playing earlier this year.
I’ll be honest: on paper, if you give me Tom Izzo with a team that includes Appling, Harris, Dawson and Payne, I’m likely picking that team to win the title regardless of who the fifth guy is. But right now, Appling is not himself. You can see it. He landed hard on a lob attempt on Sunday and his wrist was visibly bothering him. In the three games since he came back, he hasn’t played more than 25 minutes, has taken just seven shots and scored only nine points. He’s 0-for-2 from three and 1-for-3 from the line.
In other words, he’s hurting.
But this injury happened in December against North Carolina. That’s two-and-a-half months ago. He missed three games in an effort to get it healed up. It’s still bothering him. At this point, why should we assume that it will get better?
Appling’s injury is only part of the issue.
When so many guys have missed so many games, what happens if they do all end up on the floor together again? Will they be able to mesh? Will they remember what sets to run? Will they be comfortable playing alongside one another? Will everything click?
We’re all waiting for the Spartans to get back to 100%, but at what point do we ask A) if they can get to full strength, or B) if their full-strength is as good as it was in November?