Point guard Keith Appling, left, is one of several Spartans nursing injuries. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
East Lansing It's late March, and the practice court is full, buzzing with activity — and yelling — inside Breslin Center.
The training room's full, too. And at Michigan State, unlike many college basketball programs, that's another welcome sign of spring, perhaps.
Michigan State, bound for the Sweet 16 and a Friday night clash against Duke in Indianapolis, is the nation's No. 1 rebounding team. But though no one's keeping an official tally, they're also tops in another category.
"We probably lead the nation in popped shoulders," freshman guard Denzel Valentine joked, when asked about the troublesome injury trend the past few months. "I mean, it seems like every game someone's going down."
It does seem like it, doesn't it? Michigan State's starting backcourt of Keith Appling and Gary Harris has combined for a handful of shoulder dislocations, and that's probably a conservative estimate. Throw in Branden Dawson's struggles returning from a torn ACL last March and Travis Trice dealing with post-concussion symptoms and a broken nose, not to mention Appling's other ailments — a sprained ankle, tendinitis in his knee — and it's enough to give a coach a headache.
"We have had some bizarre injuries," said Izzo, whose team almost literally has been playing with one arm tied behind its back. "It's been a strange run. But part of me wonders if that's just who we are. There's always gotta be something going on with us. That's kind of what this team is, you know?"
Now then, Izzo knows Michigan State's not the only team dealing with injuries. Duke certainly has had its share, including senior leaders Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. And it's not like this is a new challenge for Michigan State, either.
For Izzo, the closest comparison in recent memory is probably 2010, when his team made a Final Four run despite losing point guard Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles and Delvon Roe (knee) and Chris Allen (foot) were slowed by injuries.
Raymar Morgan, who'd endured a nightmare season of illness and injuries the year before, broke his tooth in the victory over Maryland that saw Lucas go down.
But for the current players, this is uncomfortably new territory.
"This is really the first time I had to deal with it," said Appling, a junior point guard. "I would say it's really irritating. Every time I move a certain way, I get a sharp pain. But, I mean, it's basketball. These type of things tend to happen. You just gotta fight through it."
He was doing exactly that last weekend against Memphis, fighting to match his usual defensive intensity despite the aching knee — "I just wasn't able to move the way I wanted to," he said — when he caught his right arm awkwardly and felt his shoulder pop. Again.
"It just slid out," Appling said. "But after I stood up, it went right back in."
After a trip to the locker room to have the shoulder checked, Appling returned to the bench. He never checked back into the game — finishing with two points and two assists in 28 minutes — at least in part because the Spartans had things well in hand.
Appling was back at practice as a full participant Monday, showing no ill effects. He said afterward the shoulder felt fine.
'Built on toughness'
Of course, that's a relative term. Because when asked when was the last time he felt healthy, Appling laughed and replied, "Germany" — a reference to the season opener overseas against Connecticut.
That was November, this is March. And trust me, the NCAA Tournament isn't the only reason it feels different.
"Yeah, we're all getting real familiar with the ice tub this time of year," said Harris, a freshman shooting guard who has dealt with injuries to both shoulders. "You just never really get rest. That's the hardest part. My body needs rest to completely heal from these injuries.
"But we don't have the luxury of rest right now. So you've just got to deal with it."
Izzo said one of the positives he took from the victory over Memphis was the way his team dealt with Appling's injury. There was no letdown when the floor leader left the court wincing in pain.
"Maybe that's the advantage of it happening like this," Izzo said. "I don't know if numb to it is the right way to say it, but I think they've learned how to deal with it, to a certain extent."
For the younger players on the roster, that means understanding their role can expand at a moment's notice.
"If a guy goes down, somebody just has to put on their big-boy pants and go in and make plays," said Valentine, who chipped in nine points, six rebounds and six assists in extended playing time (25 minutes) with Appling sidelined. "That's what we have to do. Players have to step up."
For Appling and the others, it means dealing with discomfort at all hours — "I sleep on my side a lot, so it's tough trying to adjust," he said — and learning to grin and bear it.
"This program is built on toughness, you know?" he said. "So a couple injuries and ailments? That's nothing that should stop us from accomplishing the things we want to accomplish. I'm not gonna let aches and pains stop me now."
Duke vs. Michigan State
Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. Friday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Records: No. 2 seed Duke 29-5,No. 3 Michigan State 27-8
Series: Duke leads 7-2 (Duke 74-69,Nov. 15, 2011)
Outlook: Duke, which is 98-32 in NCAA Tournament history, and Michigan State, 56-25, have met three times in the NCAAs, with the Blue Devils winning twice.