For the first time since January 4th, Michigan State played a basketball game with everyone on their roster available as Branden Dawson made his triumphant return from a broken hand on Saturday afternoon.
It’s the moment that we’ve been waiting for since Gary Harris sat out his first game with a bum ankle way back in November. It was the first chance that the Spartans had to prove that the team that lost five of their last nine games wasn’t the real Michigan State. That was the tired, beat down, injury-ravaged Michigan State.
This new Michigan State, the healthy one, was going to host a disappointing Illinois team with little left to play for, a team that had lost eight straight and 10 of 11 earlier this season.
And what ended up happening?
The Illini went into the Breslin Center and smacked around the No. 18 Spartans, jumping out to a double-digit first half lead and hanging on to win 53-46.
Gary Harris scored 19 of those 46 points. He played well. Adreian Payne? He finished with four points, seven boards, just five field goals attempted and no fouls or blocks. Denzel Valentine was 1-for-6 from the floor with five turnovers. Keith Appling was 2-for-5 with four turnovers.
The most disconcerting part had nothing to do with the loss itself, because those happen. Everyone has off nights, even teams that are supposedly getting to full-strength and back to being a national title contender. No one — not even a Tom Izzo-coached team — is immune to a stinker.
But this wasn’t just an off-night from the Spartans. They looked completely out of it. Their fight wasn’t there, and in the end, that’s supposed to be what the difference-maker is for this group. Michigan State has a reputation for playing harder and more physical than anyone, and it just so happens that these guys are as talented as anyone in the country. That’s why the nation was enamored with them even when they didn’t have all their pieces available.
The silver lining? I doubt that Michigan State will sleepwalk through a game again, because I don’t think that anyone on that roster is going to enjoy what happens in practice the next couple of days. Effort is the only thing that an individual can control in a basketball game. They can, and I expect that they will, play harder than this for the next month.
The bigger issue may actually be Keith Appling. Michigan State’s all-Big Ten point guard is simply a shell of himself. “Keith Appling is a major problem right now because he just can’t do what he could do,” Izzo told reporters after the game. He injured his right wrist in December, and he is clearly not right. He can’t shoot, I don’t know how well he can dribble with his right hand, he’s not attacking the basket. It’s bad.
Travis Trice is a decent-enough replacement for Appling, but he’s not an all-league caliber player.
Effort issues can be fixed, but if Appling isn’t healthy, Michigan State will never truly be at full-strength.