Finally, the Michigan State Spartans have a fully recuperated roster, but are they ready to make that desired NCAA tournament run?
At the beginning of the season, they were regarded as one of the premier teams in the nation and emerged as one of the early favorites to win the NCAA tournament. Now, 31 games and an injury-plagued regular season later, they are entering the Big Ten tournament having failed to win consecutive games since Jan. 21.
Their inability to play well consistently is troubling. However, there was only so much the limited Spartans could do with their key players sidelined for such an extensive period.
Now, they're back.
But not altogether as Keith Appling's wrist is still healing. The Spartans have finally returned Branden Dawson and don't seem to be hindered by any ailing setbacks.
Collectively, MSU is improving, although it still has some pressing issues.
First, Sparty is still having trouble stopping teams. In its last five games, the team hasn't held an opponent to less than 46.7 percent shooting from the field, which largely explains why it lost three of those contests.
Its rotations aren't quick enough, and players haven't been able to contain ball-handlers. Ohio State, a squad not revered for its offensive explosiveness, drove into the lane and found open players at will.
That's a troubling prospect, considering Michigan State's individual talent on that end of the floor. Appling is known for disrupting ball-handlers and setting the tone. Gary Harris is third in the Big Ten in steals and was named to the All-Defensive First Team for the conference. Adreian Payne and Matt Costello are solid rim-protectors, and Dawson is as versatile as they come.
Yet the issues continue to present themselves.
It could be a lack of continuity. This team hasn't practiced at full strength for more than a couple weeks in a very long time, though the learning curve should accelerate because of this team's experience with one another.
Additionally, it has had issues with foul trouble. Denzel Valentine and Dawson played less than half of the Ohio State game for that reason alone, and there were three starters with four or more fouls.
What's more troubling is how State has failed to physically impose its will on smaller teams. On both the defensive and rebounding fronts, this team hasn't played the way past Michigan State teams have.
Whatever the issue may be, Izzo must get his guys back to playing Spartan defense. It is holding opposing teams to 40.1 percent shooting from the floor for the entire season, which proves that State has the capabilities to suppress opponents completely.
The Spartans did it earlier in the season. Once they practice and play together more, they will return to their previous stingy, cohesive self.
On a positive note, Appling has clearly gotten more comfortable putting pressure on his wrist. He knocked down two three-pointers in the Iowa game, which helped break it open for the Spartans. While his performance in the Ohio State game wasn't quite as stellar, it's certainly comforting knowing he can run the team without favoring one side anymore.
Appling hasn't fully returned to his former self just yet, but by tournament time, he should be very close.
Another encouraging sign is Dawson's return to normalcy. Much like Payne, though not in the same dominant fashion, Dawson's insertion into the lineup has been a smooth one. In the Iowa contest, he had seven rebounds, blocked three shots and recorded five steals.
That game epitomized Dawson's multi-faceted skill set. He is a game-changer, and Appling is the rock—both are essential pieces to Michigan State's success.
Collectively, the level of play has recently risen. The offense has run more fluidly, and during sporadic stretches, has looked unstoppable. The Spartans must sustain more quality stretches on both sides, however.
But talent is certainly not an issue. Perhaps no other team has three All-American-esque players, mixed with incredible athletes and fantastic specialists. Beyond the starting five, State has quality backups. Travis Trice has played admirably in the last several games and Kenny Kaminski leads the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage.
Talent is a necessity for any tournament success. But talent mixed with experience and fantastic coaching is a rarity, especially in today's world of college basketball.
Right now, the Spartans have all of that. They are tracking toward becoming that championship-caliber team they displayed at earlier stages in the season, though they must work to rectify their defensive and rebounding issues.
The Big Ten tournament is a perfect precursor for the Big Dance. According to Joe Lunardi's latest projected bracket, six conference teams appear to have at-large bids, which will adequately prepare Michigan State for the tournament.
A convincing victory followed by a nail-biting loss in a raucous environment are positive signs for Sparty. The team surely has improved over the last ten days or so.
Just imagine where it will be over the next ten. By the time March 20-21 arises, Izzo will have this team poised for a deep run.