Some come earlier, some a little later, but the Michigan State Spartans always get a wake-up call at some point in the season.
The first of what could be many—if the Spartans fail to adjust accordingly—came Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, where the Spartans crept away with a 62-59 win on the strength of late free throws from Keith Appling and Gary Harris.
Perhaps the Hawkeyes' near-miss will spark a fire in Michigan State's star junior. Perhaps it will spark a fire in them, too.
Appling has been reliable in the past with the game on the line. He's done a respectable job in keeping his composure when it matters most. The Cousy Award finalist can turn on a mean streak, bolt toward the rim, draw contact, get the foul and sink the shot.
Appling was more aggressive Thursday night than he was in his previous appearance, although the close score doesn't really suggest that. He contributed 12 points, compared to just six in a massive, 84-61 trouncing of Purdue this past Saturday.
He needs to be near his average of 14 points per run if the Spartans are to get out of the Big Ten with fewer than five losses.
During a phone interview earlier this week, Spartans legend Morris Peterson spoke highly of Appling, saying that he adds energy to Izzo's offense.
I think Keith Appling is a guy who is reliable -- he scores when we need him to and finds ways to make plays. I also think the team plays better when he is more aggressive and attacks the basket more. I watch some games, and he makes great moves and gets to the basket.
I want to see him come down and dunk on somebody. I want to see him do that. I see his athleticism... He’s definitely a Big Ten Player of the Year-caliber player.
Peterson added that the Flinstones operated smoothly when floor general Mateen Cleaves harnessed his defense and bombarded the rim with an "aggressive mindset."
A loss to the Hawkeyes would have given Michigan State (13-3, 2-1) a pair of conference setbacks through three games. That's hardly the start that Izzo and Co. were looking for—far from the expectations set for a team that's capable of Izzo-ing its way through March.
Appling is the unquestioned leader. He has the demeanor, but he needs to drastically turn up his volume—especially during this year, a season that looks absolutely brutal for any team in the Big Ten.
Michigan State faces the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Jan. 13, the same Huskers that hung around the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines before losing 62-47.
Considering what the Wolverines have done to their foes thus far, Nebraska should consider itself lucky it didn't lose by 30.
The Nebraska game may prove to be an overlooked hurdle in Michigan State's path to another league championship.
Sure, each conference date will be tough; they always are, for the most part. Not much has changed in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
However, two weeks ago, the Jan. 13 showdown at the Breslin Center looked like another in-the-bag win for the Spartans.
That may not be the case.
Looking ahead, Michigan State has arguably one of the most trying periods of any team in college basketball. From Jan. 16 to Feb. 9, the Spartans play the 15th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, the fifth-ranked Indiana Hoosiers, the 12th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini and the eighth-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers.
And that's not counting a visit Jan. 22 to the Kohl Center in Madison to meet Bo Ryan's unranked Wisconsin Badgers. That's always a hostile environment.
Teams that shouldn't beat good teams have a way of beating good teams. Maybe Thursday's debacle against Iowa was just a classic case of a conference road game gone wrong for the nationally ranked visitors.
Or maybe it was an example of how solid the Big Ten really is this year. Home-court advantage will be key, even for the perennial bottom-dwellers that are chasing the upper half of the league.
The road won't get any kinder from here. Michigan State will need Appling to run at full speed, forging ahead with the same aggressive charge that makes him one of the most difficult guards to check in the land.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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