Michigan State's Branden Dawson (right) likely will return for Saturday's game against Illinois after missing nine games with a broken hand. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — A day after Michigan State was swept in the regular season by Michigan, coach Tom Izzo understands the frustration surrounding his team’s play over the last month.
Including their first loss to Michigan on Jan. 25, the Spartans are 4-5 and have played without three starters for large chunks of that stretch.
But even after a sixth loss in the last eight meetings with its top rival, Izzo remains convinced all is not lost for Michigan State
“We’re 22-6 not 6-22,” Izzo said Monday on the Big Ten teleconference. “(I’m) disappointed that we haven’t played as well but sometimes when you bring new guys back that haven’t played for a month there’s an adjustment to getting that back, too.”
That has been the case in recent games as forward Adreian Payne is now back after missing seven games with a sprained foot and Keith Appling was back in the starting lineup while working back from a three-game absence with a sore wrist. Forward Branden Dawson is expected to return Saturday against Illinois after missing nine games with a broken hand.
But as was evident in the loss to Michigan when Michigan State wore down in the second half and turned the ball over 13 times, just getting players back is only part of the issue for the Spartans.
“We looked at the number of practices missed and there’s been a five-year period where we haven’t had as many practices missed as we’ve had in one year,” Izzo said. “This is not the norm, this is the exception to the rule. It’s too bad that it’s happened with one of our better teams but there’s still some time left to get it straightened out and, as I said, some of these things we can control and some of these things we have no control of. And see if you want to take a couple guys off anyone’s team, much less one, but two or three it’s gonna be a problem.
“So it’s disappointing, frustrating, frustrating for our fans, frustrating for me, frustrating maybe most for our players because now they have to learn to play with new people again.”
Michigan State will have plenty of practice time without a game during the week to work out the kinks, though there is certainly a sense of urgency with just three games remaining in the regular season.
“That’s gonna be the other issue, finding the balance,” Izzo said. “When Dawson comes back we’ll be much better defensively. I think that’s been the biggest negative right now is we have not been very good defensively. That’s because Dawson was one of our best defenders one, and Payne is not in the kind of shape to defend as well as he was defending. You get them all back and things are gonna happen, but you also got to get them back in time to make sure they happen and that’s been a little bit of a struggle.”
After Saturday’s game at home against the Illini, the Spartans finish with a game at home against Iowa and a trip to Ohio State.
While winning the Big Ten regular-season title might be out of reach now, Izzo still hasn’t lost faith his team will get back to playing like the team that, at one point, was the No. 1 team in the nation.
“We’re struggling to get through it, we’re gonna get through it and we’re gonna get better, I really believe that,” he said. “There were moments yesterday when we played some of our best basketball, yet sustaining it is gonna be an issue here for a while and we just gotta find a way to fight through it.”
“But it is what it is and I’m just gonna figure I love this team, I love the talent of this team. I love the guys that we got. We just got to get better and get some practice time.”