Tom Izzo has never had a class of seniors graduate without reaching the Final Four in their time as a Spartan. He also has not coached with a fully healthy roster in the past two seasons with the exception of opening night this year in Chicago against then number one Kentucky. All too often in collegiate and professional athletics that determine their champion in a knockout tournament style format, the champion comes down to what team is playing the best at the latest time. What can get overlooked is, those teams who triumph tend to luck out in the injury department and avoid losing key pieces to their championship puzzle. Now, people will say injuries are just a part of any game and that is true, but we've seen over the years that teams that get decimated one year can usually count on better luck in the following season. In other words, injuries are like many things in life, they tend to even out eventually. With that in mind, let's examine what derailed Coach Izzo's club last March.
Playing well down the stretch is directly correlated with team cohesion and chemistry. The 2012 Spartans had two major disruptions in trying to obtain this. First was backup point guard Travis Trice's two concussions in a three month stretch that put him in and out of the lineup from opening night on last year. Trice's absence for stretches of games was especially detrimental to the Spartans because of Keith Appling's sporadic play in his junior campaign. Appling shot just 41% from the floor overall and a pedestrian 32% from behind the arc. With shooting percentages across the board and assist numbers both down from his sophomore year it's clear the lack of a third backcourt scorer and competent back up contributed to Appling's regression.
The other factor that perhaps forced the Spartan point guard to press was the health of his backcourt partner, Gary Harris. Harris suffered a shoulder injury in the middle of the season and it was well known when Big Ten play thickened that Harris had to try to gut through games at much less then 100%. After a crushing defeat in the NCAA Tournament to Duke in which none of Michigan State's stars shot the ball particularly well, Harris made the decision to pass on the NBA draft and return to MSU. Though he opted against surgery, a full offseason rehab program and the opportunity to show scouts and the rest of the nation what made him Mr. Basketball in Indiana when healthy, undoubtedly contributed to his decision to stay.
Now fast forward to November 12th, 2013. #1 Kentucky vs. #2 Michigan State at the United Center in Chicago for the Champions Classic. It was the toughness, defensive-minded, experienced Spartans battling the most heralded collection of freshman college hoops has seen since the Fab Five. With all eyes on this showcase, the nation got to witness the Spartans' ceiling as a basketball team. This group dominated Kentucky for a large portion of the game and never trailed. We saw an explosive Gary Harris, scoring and making plays for his teammates off the bounce. We saw a much improved Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine who seemed poised to contribute more often and more efficiently then in their freshman seasons. We saw Travis Trice come in and spark the offense while sparing minutes for the drastically more mature and improved senior floor general, Keith Appling. We saw what a top five coach in the country can do when he combines his experience with his young talent and blends that with a clean bill of health. And finally, we saw the other three potentially elite teams in the showcase leaving Chicago very wary of the squad Coach Izzo is assembling in East Lansing.
If you ask any coach, the first game of the season provides little as to what their team will look like come March. However, for fans, it is easy to see what could have the Breslin buzzing about this spring. That excitement is met with caution now as once again injuries have crept their way into this locker room albeit it is still very early. Four starters: Keith Appling (hip pointer), Gary Harris (ankle), Adreian Payne (planter fasciitis), Matt Costello (mononucleosis) are all currently fighting through issues with their bodies, but the good news is there are signs of improvement from all four. Look no further then last week's Texas game. While Costello is still recovering from his illness and Appling struggled with his shot, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne combined for 54 of the team's 92 points on 67% shooting as they routed the Longhorns in Austin. With just one non-conference game remaining before the Big Ten schedule starts the Spartans will surely look to build off that performance as they begin their second season.
Why have teams like Louisville, Connecticut and Duke won championships in the last five years? Why has the final four been filled with mid-major programs like Butler, VCU and most recently Wichita State? College basketball has proven time and again that in an era of one-and-done players and high profile freshman becoming high NBA draft picks, that experience in March is as invaluable as overwhelming talent. The hearts of these juniors and seniors who have stuck around the college game longer yearn more for a championship than a paycheck. These kids emphasize the fundamentals, teamwork and passion that endears college basketball to so many of its fans and lately has led to the underdog spoiling many lottery picks' goals of capturing a title their one year in college.
Now to be clear, Michigan State is by no means an underdog, but they are certainly built like one. With no freshman likely to make key contributions from here on out and two seniors determined to continue to uphold part of Izzo's Final Four legacy, experience certainly will not be an issue. A rabid fan base (Google MSU riots after win over Ohio State in Big Ten Championship) and a future Hall of Fame coach that preaches defense and rebounding, the Spartans are equipped with tools other teams simply lack. The biggest question remains health. If Michigan State's luck can sway the other direction for a change and be blessed with a string of good health then the rest of the country needs to watch out. This team is hungry to bring a championship back to East Lansing for the first time in fourteen years. With Izzo being notorious for getting his teams ready to peak by the tip-off of March Madness, a clean bill of health might be all that stands in the way of the Spartans cutting down the nets in Dallas.