Injured Keith Appling cheers from the bench during MSU's win over Penn State on Thursday night. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — Tom Izzo stood off to the side of a podium pointing to the back of his hand while trying to explain another injury to his Michigan State basketball team.
Izzo’s hand is fine. He can still cross you over and hit a set-shot free throw. His starting point guard Keith Appling cannot. The good news is his Spartans still have not reached their breaking point even as the team breaks down around him.
MSU (20-3 overall, 9-1 in the Big Ten) remains stride for stride with bitter rival Michigan (17-5, 9-1) in a delicious match race that barely creates a ripple around here. College basketball is not king around here. Football is. It is one reason why another MSU Rose Bowl tribute and the introduction of new Lions coach Jim Caldwell drew wild applause at Breslin Center during an 82-67 victory Thursday night over Penn State.
The two state schools have the best records in the best conference and there should be more buzz.
There also needs to be a moratorium on Spartans injuries. Appling missed the Penn State game just as teammate Adreian Payne (foot) returned to the lineup. It was a night when the place grew silent as backup point guard Travis Trice pulled up lame with what appeared to be another ankle injury. But he returned to the game and looked fine.
Gary Harris, Matt Costello, Kenny Kaminski (suspensions), Branden Dawson, Trice and Appling also have missed games or practices. Izzo asked his crew to add up how much time his players have lost but the computer blew up.
We will have to get back to you on that one.
“We have been solid but I don’t think we are anywhere where we need to be,” Izzo said. “I think it is going to be difficult to get there and get the smoothness back in this team.”
Two clearly the best
MSU might be the best team in the country. The problem is injuries keep getting in the way. Dawson is out for Sunday’s game at Wisconsin, and there is a good chance Appling will be out, as well.
Appling’s wrist has been in steady decline. He is shooting just 31 percent in his last four games and 48.5 percent from the free throw line. Appling is a career 76 percent free throw shooter.
This machine is running at only 80 percent power. The word on the recruiting trail is the players are beating each other up in practice. The reality is Izzo put the shoulder pads, football helmets and billy clubs away a long time ago. Izzo does not like the accusations and it was really the only time he got stern during our talk.
“I want you to make sure you understand this,” he said. “There has not been one injury that has been in practice.”
Still, the Spartans stand alone with Michigan. There are tough games remaining, but our two state teams hold a three-game lead in the loss column against their closest foe, Iowa. This is not just any run-of-the-mill conference title run for Izzo. He admits it is more special because he is battling Michigan.
With health, who knows?
A couple years ago, Izzo sat in his office and talked about how special it would be for Michigan and Michigan State to become the North Carolina and Duke of the north. Both programs are consistent top-20 programs now and are doing their share.
Michigan went to the NCAA Finals last season. MSU has six Final Four appearances under Izzo and a national title. More titles are needed along with more buzz from the fan base.
“Give them credit. They have played well,” Izzo said of Michigan. “They won at our place. This bodes well for our state. I feel like we are in the hunt right now after all we have gone through. You have to be in the hunt to be able to win a championship. We are in the hunt.”
Yes, the Spartans are. Sometimes I wonder how. This team has an excellent chance at a national title if it is healthy. The problem is the lineup Izzo puts out there is not Final Four worthy. But they keep hanging on the edge and hanging in the race.
“Our guys have done a hell of a job of hanging in there,” Izzo said. “We have been ham-and-egging it all season. I guess you can give our players credit.”