It has been since early January that the Spartans have had their entire team at full strength. No injuries, no tweaks, no sickness, no excuses. Most Spartan fans can’t even remember what that team looked like. Let’s go back to January 4th, at Indiana. As Gary Harris seems to do in his home state of Indiana, he went for 26 points, 5 steals, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Harris was complimented by two others who have been bitten hard by the injury bug this season as well. Branden Dawson put up 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Keith Appling scored 14 points and no turnovers. Adreian Payne did not have a standout game numbers wise with only 4 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and two blocks. However, he did an excellent job defensively on Indiana’s star freshman Noah Vonleh holding him to 5 points. The Spartans won that game in a route over the Hoosiers 73-56. At that point they were 13-1 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten, and ranked number 5 in the nation.
Flash forward almost two months to today, March 1st, 2014. On the first day of the greatest month of the year, the Michigan State Spartans will finally have their entire team back and available to play. I can’t say they will have everyone back 100% healthy because I do not believe that is the truth, but having them back is definitely better than not having them at all. Branden Dawson will be the last to return to court of the injured Spartans. Dawson broke his hand after slamming a table out of frustration during a film session just days before the Michigan game at the Breslin Center on January 25th. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne have made their returns to the lineup in recent weeks from their injuries. Dawson will not start today against Illinois, but will play. How many minutes we will see Dawson is unknown. But again, it is at least hopefully a start to getting this team back to 100%.
You want to be playing your best basketball and peaking at this stage in the season. As of right now, the Spartans are unfortunately not peaking, at least not yet. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games, and have not won back to back games since mid-January when they beat Indiana at home and Illinois on the road. The Spartans desperately needed a week off in the worst way after the devastating loss at Michigan last Sunday. They got that week off as they have not played since that game. Hopefully the week off gave Keith Appling some much needed rest, as he has not looked anywhere near 100% since returning from a wrist injury. There has actually been rumors swirling out there that Appling may sit down for the rest of the regular season in hopes of having him 100% for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. I personally do not think that is going to happen. Keith Appling is probably the most competitive guy on this team, and will refuse to sit the last three games of his senior season. I also believe if Izzo was planning on sitting Appling down he would have already done so. Therefore, I would plan on Appling being in there for the long haul now.
The reality is that the Spartans are not out of the Big Ten race. Other than those fans in Ann Arbor, most basketball fans would agree that Michigan should have lost Wednesday at Purdue. But unfortunately, they escaped with a one point overtime win. That would have put the Spartans back into a first place tie. The Wolverines host Minnesota tonight at 6. The Golden Gophers are fighting for their NCAA Tournament life, and came up with a big win against Iowa at home on Tuesday night. A win at Michigan could really bolster their resume. Once again I’m not predicting an upset, but I would not be surprised either. And of course I’ll be putting on my Joel Przybilla jersey after the Michigan State game and rooting on the Gophers, as I expect all of Spartan Nation to do. Michigan State needs to take care of its own business today at home though, which I fully expect them to do. I look for Branden Dawson to give the team and the crowd a boost when he enters the game for the first time. Dawson has never really been an elite scoring threat, but I do think he will give the Spartans back an element they have been missing. He will contribute on both the offensive and defensive glass, and more importantly get those garbage buckets they have been missing. They cannot continue to shoot three’s at the rate they are going, and be successful going forward in my opinion. Unfortunately, the students are on spring break as of yesterday, but the alumni Izzone will be in attendance today. The alumni Izzone always does an excellent job of filling for the students. My prediction is a 78-60 Michigan State win. And hopefully a stepping stone going forward into playing their best basketball at the most important time. Go Green and Go Gophers!