I doubt that there is many people inside Spartan Nation, or across the country for that matter, that would have thought the Spartans would not be playing for at least of a share of the Big Ten Championship in the final week of the season. I would be willing to bet that, the majority of people thought that the Spartans would even be playing for a chance to win the Big Ten outright on senior night, or on Sunday at Ohio State. Unfortunately for Spartan Nation, that’s not the reality of the situation this team finds itself in entering the last week of the regular season. Michigan’s blowout win in Champaign over the Illini made the sickening thought a reality. They clinched the outright Big Ten Championship with a game left to play in the regular season. If you’re a diehard Spartan fan like I am, then this probably made you want to puke. But that’s sports and that’s why they play the games. The teams that are supposed to win don’t always win and if they did sports wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. As much as I don’t want to, you have got to give Michigan credit for winning one of, if not the toughest, conferences in the country without one of their best players. However, Spartan fans, players, coaches, managers, and anyone else invested in this team have to move on because the season is far from over. More importantly, this team’s biggest goal is still in front of them.
There’s probably at least a few games this season that, going in, you could have said this is a must-win game. I know I did it along the way this season. The games at Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, and at home against Illinois are just a few examples. However, I truly believe this game at home tonight against the Iowa Hawkeyes is THE must-win game of the season for the Michigan State Spartans. It will be the last time Spartan seniors Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Dan Chapman step out on to the Breslin Center floor in front of a home crowd. It could very well be the last time for sophomore Gary Harris as well, as he is projected to be a first round NBA draft pick in June. However, that is uncertain and up for debate. The seniors on the other hand, after 4 years of memories this is it. Appling and Payne were freshman the last time the Spartans played Iowa on senior night in 2011. That senior class, lead by Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, finished off what was a disappointing season to say the least with a win over Iowa 85-66. That was Fran McCaffery’s first year at the helm of the Hawkeyes.
Unfortunately, that 2011 Iowa team is no comparison to this year’s Iowa team. The Spartans have a difficult task tonight without a doubt. I believe the Hawkeyes are probably the deepest team in the Big Ten at probably 10-11 deep. Senior Roy Devyn Marble is their leader, but he is complemented by the extremely talented swingman Aaron White, 7-footer Adam Woodbury, and the ultra athletic Melsahn Basabe. The Spartans will have to play well in all aspects of the game to win their final regular season home game, and more importantly avoid a three-game losing streak. The dinged-up Spartans escaped Iowa City with a 71-69 overtime win in the first matchup of the season between these two teams. At the time, that was one of those must-win games, and the Spartans found a way to get it done without Adreian Payne or Branden Dawson.
The key to tonight’s game will be coming out with energy from the get-go and jumping on the Hawkeyes early. It should be rocking in the Breslin Center tonight for senior night, which should help boost this team in the energy department. The only thing that worries me is that the students are still on spring break, and the Izzone will be significantly downsized. This team feeds off of the Izzone, especially in a close game, and I think that could be more of a factor than people think. The Izzone members in attendance are going to have to step up their game big time with most of their comrades probably in Panama City or South Padre.
It may sound cliche being senior night, but I believe Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will both have to play well for MSU to get a win tonight. Keith Appling is as electric in the open floor as any guard in the country when he’s on his game. And the Spartans, offensively, are at their best as a team when they get out in transition and get easy buckets. They have not been the same team in transition since Appling has been hampered with this wrist injury. This team needs its senior point guard to lead the charge in getting the running game going again. I do not think there is a big man in the Big Ten that can keep Adreian Payne from scoring consistently in the post. However, the Spartans do not get him the ball enough inside. The reality is since Payne can score inside and out, and is not a true center or low post player, but for Michigan State to successful in the half court I believe he needs to get more touches inside. Even if he draws a double-team, like he has quite a bit lately, that should free up shooters like Gary Harris, Travis Trice, and Kenny Kaminski. Gary Harris is still this team’s leading scorer at 17.9 per game, and I’m confident he will find a way to get 12-18 again tonight or more. My beef with Harris lately, is he has become primarily a shooter and not an all-around scorer. Gary Harris is a good shooter, and at times a great shooter, but when he’s at his best he’s a pure scorer. He shows glimpses of this at times, like when he used a great shot fake in the Illinois game and blew by Illini defenders for a dunk. He needs to use his ability to score from the outside to his advantage and get to the rim more often. In my opinion, he is taking way too many contested three’s when he could shot fake, get into the paint and either score at the rim or a hit a mid-range jumper. Gary Harris is way too talented to resort to being only an outside shooter.
I believe it has been 14 years since Michigan State has lost 3 straight games at the Breslin Center. I do not believe that changes tonight. I think the Spartans finally start to right the ship, play inspired, and get a must-win and season sweep over the Iowa Hawkeyes. As I mentioned before, these two seniors have contributed a great deal to this program already, but they are not satisfied. They do not want to be remembered as the first four-year players to play for Tom Izzo and not get to a Final Four. I believe that quest for a trip to Dallas starts tonight with a win on their home floor for the final time. In one of the great senior night traditions in college basketball, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will cap off their senior night with a kiss to the floor at center court. They will remember that moment for the rest of their lives, just as all the other Spartan greats who have come before them. I encourage anyone attending the game tonight to stick around for the post-game senior night presentation, where Adreian Payne will be accompanied by his dear friend Lacey. Win or lose that will be a special moment for both of them. The game is scheduled for a 9 pm ET start on ESPN with Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman on the call. Go Green!