Branden Dawson, left, has been a spectator since breaking his hand before the Michigan game. He's missed three games, while Adreian Payne has missed seven. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
New York — All season long — even before it started, in fact — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has talked about the amazing chemistry on his team.
He didn’t say it would guarantee anything in terms of wins and losses, but in a team lacking any clear leader, it certainly could go a long way in getting the Spartans through the tough times that are bound to crop up for most teams.
For much of the season, that chemistry has been tested for a team that has rarely been 100 percent. First came the ankle injury to guard Gary Harris, followed by illnesses that knocked out guard Travis Trice for a week and forward Matt Costello for four games. In between, Kenny Kaminski went through two separate suspensions and point guard Keith Appling has been slowed by wrist and hip injuries.
But it’s the last seven games that have truly been the most difficult. It began when senior forward Adreian Payne sat out the Minnesota game with a sprained right foot, an injury from which he has yet to return. It intensified nearly two weeks ago when junior forward Branden Dawson broke his right hand, banging it on a table while watching game film.
For seven games, Michigan State found a way to gut out five victories. Some — actually most — were not pretty, but with Payne out for four games then joined by Dawson for the last three, the only thing that mattered was getting the win.
Entering Saturday’s non-conference game against Georgetown, the only loss had come at home to Michigan when the Wolverines shot 57.9 percent from 3-point range and pulled out a five-point victory.
But the loss Saturday to the Hoyas at Madison Square Garden hammered home the obvious — the valiant effort has been fine, but if Michigan State hopes to reach the goals it has set for this season, it needs Payne back now and Dawson as soon as possible.
Payne is expected to practice Monday and should return to the lineup Thursday against Penn State. Dawson likely won’t be back until the end of the month at the earliest. But just getting Payne and his 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game back will make a huge difference for a team that has become one-dimensional offensively and suspect on the glass.
Like in many of the last seven games, there was virtually no low-post presence Saturday and the defense suffocated Michigan State’s guards, especially Harris, who failed to reach double figures for the first time all season in the win at Iowa.
Rebounding also continues to be an issue as the Spartans have been beaten on the boards in three of the past seven games and were even against the Hawkeyes. Early in Saturday’s game, Georgetown held a 12-1 advantage.
“We got nobody to throw it inside to, and we’re relying on 3-point shots,” Izzo said on Saturday. “We take 29 of them tonight … when you can’t throw it inside and get fouled, those are problems.
“But Appling is gonna learn it will be easier when (Payne) gets back, because then on the ball screen they won’t just double Appling, because we’ve got a pick-and-pop guy in there.”
Against Georgetown, the Spartans were frustrated on offense routinely, and it’s a trend that has been becoming more evident with each game Payne has missed and has been even more glaring with Dawson also out.
“We need him back bad,” Appling said of Payne. “We miss his post presence and just his presence in general. He makes things easier on me, especially coming off the ball screens. It will be great having him back.”
Some questioned the timing of Saturday’s game — a non-conference meeting in the middle of conference play — wondering if an ailing team would have been better served taking the day off. But as athletic director Mark Hollis pointed out, Michigan State likely would have played a conference game had it not agreed to the matchup with Georgetown.
In that sense, the loss to the Hoyas will have little bearing on anything besides serving as a reminder of the value that both Payne and Dawson bring.
Michigan State now is tied with Michigan atop the Big Ten and expects to be playing on the final weekend of the season at the Final Four in Texas. It won’t get there without Payne and Dawson, and the past few weeks have proven that.
“Maybe we got a little, I wouldn’t say we got run down from the (injuries),” Izzo said after the loss to Georgetown. “But I think we got a little full of ourselves and think we’re gonna win pretty. So as sick as it sounds, maybe it will help us.”