February 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Loaded? We'll know soon enough which direction Spartans are marching

Tom Izzo on win over Northwestern
Tom Izzo on win over Northwestern: Michigan State's coach breaks down the win over the Wildcats.

East Lansing -- Denzel Valentine took a seat with the rest of the Michigan State starters with about 90 seconds left in Thursday night’s 85-70 victory over Northwestern at the Breslin Center.

He immediately threw his arm around the shoulder of Tom Izzo as if to console him, and if it looked like a bit of a role reversal — with a laugh, Valentine assured me it wasn’t — it would’ve been understandable.

This hasn’t been easy, coaching a different team every week, with starters wearing casts and a cast of reserves playing starter’s minutes. Yet here Izzo’s team is now, a month away from tournament time, with the same potential it began the season with — and maybe more.

“When healthy, I truly believe they’re the best team in the country, I really do,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said after watching the ninth-ranked Spartans put together their best offensive performance of the Big Ten season. “They’re loaded.”

That’s a loaded compliment, I suppose. And moments later, when told what Collins, the longtime Duke assistant, had said, Izzo deadpanned, “Well, he just got fired from Duke, I know that.”

But he knows Collins might be right, too. And since the start of the season, Izzo hasn’t shied away from the expectations for this squad, one that he compared favorably with his best teams at Michigan State, including the 1999-2000 national champs.

“We’ve got a chance to be one of the top teams in the country,” he acknowledged again Thursday night. “I do believe that. I’ve believed that all year. … But when you guys ask me that million-dollar question, ‘So where’s your team at?’ I never give you a very good answer, because I really don’t know. I wish I did.”

Reinforcements coming

Wishing won’t make it so, of course. Won’t make those injuries heal any faster, either, and don’t bother asking Izzo for a medical update anymore. Even though he jokes that he’s “gotten a degree in medicine this year,” he’s quick to add, “And I really have zero interest in continuing it.”

But he’s hoping point guard Keith Appling, who still wears a brace to protect his right wrist, will be back sometime next week. His other sidelined starter, forward Branden Dawson, is expected to have the pins taken out of his broken hand next Friday, but still might need another week after that before he’s back in the lineup.

The sooner the better, though. And that’s something Izzo and Collins were chatting about Thursday. Collins recalls the difficulty late-season returns posed for Duke, where he was a longtime assistant to Mike Krzyzewski in recent years. Kyrie Irving in 2011 and Ryan Kelly last season both came back from foot injuries just in time for the NCAA Tournament.

It’s hard enough when it’s one starter. But with all the shuffling Izzo has had to do this winter, it’s a far bigger challenge.

“We have got to get a rotation down as soon as we can,” he said. “To think that we’re gonna be able to do that the last week of the season and be ready for the Big Ten tournament and the Dance, that’s not gonna happen.”

Maybe not. But what has happened here lately does offer some hope it’s all for the better, as key role players have gained confidence and now seem to be showing it on the court.

Depth is developing

Valentine still drives his coach nuts at times, but he’s finally doing more than simply flashing his potential. Travis Trice, another player who spent time in the infirmary, has been mostly terrific running the team in Appling’s absence, with zero turnovers in his three starts. Together, the two guards, who each played 33 minutes Thursday, combined for 27 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and just one turnover.

Combined with the play of Matt Costello, who started alongside Adreian Payne for the first time since November, and Kenny Kaminski (eight points, five rebounds) there was a lot to like in the win over Northwestern. Against one of the better defensive teams in the league, Michigan State shot 53.3 percent from the field and finished with 22 assists on 32 made baskets.

“I think it kind of shows our depth,” Trice said. “Due to injuries, it kind of showed how talented our team is from top to bottom. Anytime you can lose 2-3 starters and you don’t have any dropoff, I mean, that’s big.”

It’s also not entirely accurate. After an 18-1 start, the Spartans had lost three of their last five games, including Sunday’s crusher at Wisconsin. But despite that, the Spartans (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) are tied with Michigan atop the league standings — minus a tiebreaker — with a half-dozen games remaining.

“It’d be exciting to see what they could become,” Collins said.

And perhaps enough time to find out.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michigan State's Denzel Valentine has a chat with Tom Izzo near the end of Thursday night's game. / Al Goldis / Associated Press
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