January 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Michigan State playing great, and it appears the best is yet to come

Michigan State sophomore Matt Costello is making an impact. He had eight points and six blocked shots against Illinois on Saturday. (Robin Scholz / Associated Press)

Champaign, Ill. — Maybe it was the fact Tom Izzo’s in-game rants were almost exclusively directed toward the officials on Saturday night.

Maybe it was the fact he smiled wide when, near the end of the game, his players broke the huddle yelling, “make history,” in reference to the best start to a season the Spartans have ever had.

Maybe it was the fact Denzel Valentine said Saturday’s 78-62 victory over Illinois “finally felt like we were having fun.”

It could be a lot of things, but it’s becoming clearer with each passing game that Izzo’s belief he has a national championship team is looking more and more believable — and even more impressive considering they have won 17 of their first 18 games with one of its best players, Adreian Payne, sitting out the last three.

He has said it time and time again, and reiterated it last week after two tough wins over Ohio State and Minnesota — “I love my team.” And with Payne closer to returning — possibly on Saturday against Michigan — it appears things can only get better.

“We’re getting there,” Izzo said after Saturday’s victory. “We’re gutting things out. We’re better defensively than we were a month ago, we’re better rebounding than we were a month ago.”

And they’ve accomplished all that with one of the most revolving rotations Izzo has ever employed in his 19 seasons leading the Spartans. Entering the game at Illinois, Michigan State had used nine different starting lineups in 12 games.

It’s not hard to do when the list of injured and/or sick is long. Payne and his sprained right foot are just at the top of the current list, but nearly everyone in the regular rotation has been affected at some point. The ailing have included Keith Appling (hip/wrist), Gary Harris (ankle), Branden Dawson (flu), Travis Trice (flu) and Matt Costello (mononucleosis), while redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski has been suspended twice.

Somehow, the Spartans have won 10 straight over that time, are perfect away from home and head into this week with a chance to get even better. That’s because Izzo hopes Payne can start practicing early in the week.

He won’t push the senior forward knowing there are benefits to what has happened in Payne’s absence, but he also wants one of his top guys in the lineup.

“Are we better because of it?” he asked. “Maybe some guys are getting a little better, but I’d still rather have him back.”

And when he does come back, he could be even better, which isn’t too bad considering he is averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. But his time on the bench has helped him see the game better, Izzo believes.

“I’ll tell you where it’s really been fun,” Izzo said. “Adreian talks more in that huddle than he ever did. He argued for three years, and now he’s talking. And the scary part is I’m listening. And he’s had some great points, some great ideas tonight.

“I just see this kid growing and it’s really fun to watch. I think he’s going to be a better player when he comes back.”

That should be a scary notion for the rest of the Big Ten — not just because Payne will be back, but because the team is showing signs it’s even better than it was when it was ranked No. 1 in the nation for three weeks.

Defense and rebounding — staples under Izzo — have started to show signs they are rounding into form after some early, shaky performances. On Saturday, the Spartans held a 24-10 rebounding advantage at halftime and finished with a 38-25 edge for the game. They also held Illinois’ leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice, more than five points below his average as he scored just 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

Add to that the confidence that is starting to show on a nightly basis. Harris scored 23 points on Saturday taking just nine shots, hitting seven of them. Denzel Valentine scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but more importantly turned the ball over only once. Appling continues to prove he is one of the best performers with the game on the line, hitting a late 3-pointer that took the wind out of Illinois’ final comeback attempt.

Right down the line, the production is coming from everyone — Costello, Kaminski, Alex Gauna.

“We learned to play without him,” Harris said of Payne’s absence. “Some other guys stepped up. We’re building a deeper team.”

Again, not the greatest news to the other teams in the conference.

There was never much debate that Michigan State was a good team, but now, when some might expect the Spartans to falter, they are proving they just might be great.

Or, in Izzo’s mind, coming close to being great.

“We’re not where were gonna be,” he said. “But we’re making some progress.”

Good luck with that, Big Ten.