February 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Michigan has taken upper hand, but Michigan State's best days may lie ahead

Tom Izzo gets after his bench after a warning from the officials as Michigan State falls to Michigan. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Adreian Payne was in tears before heading to the bus. Keith Appling looked glassy-eyed at the floor as he answered questions. Gary Harris leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling as if it were about to collapse.

If your takeaway from Michigan’s emphatic victory over Michigan State at Crisler Center Sunday was simply that the home team “wanted it more,” well, you probably should’ve paid more attention. They wanted this, plenty.

Likewise, before you write off Tom Izzo’s team now that the Wolverines have seized control of the race for the Big Ten regular-season title, you probably should check the calendar.

It’s February, which means tournament time is still a few weeks away.

And while there’s no denying what was won in Ann Arbor — Michigan basketball isn’t just “back,” it’s here to stay — it’s too soon to say what might’ve been lost. Because the rest is what matters most.

At least that’s what the Spartans are banking on at this point. The rest for their tired legs — an obvious factor in the loss — as they begin a long overdue bye week in East Lansing. And the rest of their season, which began with considerable promise and now lies in the hands of a broken-down point guard and the broken hand of another key starter.

If this is the new normal for Michigan State basketball, as Izzo suggested, right before the lights went out at the end of his postgame news conference, the Spartans better get used to being uncomfortable. Maybe even being the underdog in their own backyard.

March-ing along

But for all the talk of the shifting balance of power, don’t underestimate the healing power of March Madness in college basketball, either.

Just last season, if you’ll recall, it was Michigan that climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings in January and then lost six of its last 12 Big Ten games before going on a magical run to the national championship game.

This season, it’s Michigan State that was off to an 18-1 start that included a stint at No. 1 in the polls before losing five of nine, thanks in part to a laundry list of injuries and precious few practices with a full complement of his starters.

“It’s too bad that it has happened with one of our better teams,” Izzo said Monday, well aware the injury excuse has taken its toll, not unlike the injuries themselves. “But there’s still some time left to get it straightened out. …

“Hey, we’re struggling to get through it, (but) we’re gonna get through it. And we’re gonna get better. I really believe that.”

How much better they get probably depends as much on the return of forward Branden Dawson, who has missed the last nine games with a broken hand, as it does on Appling’s tender wrist and shaken confidence.

The senior point guard isn’t close to 100 percent right now — he has more turnovers (eight) than shot attempts (seven) the last three games — and Izzo says he may not be a month from now, either. But it’s no coincidence Michigan State’s defensive letdown the last month has come with Dawson, the team’s most versatile defender, on the sidelines.

He’s expected back at practice this week, and should be in uniform Saturday when Michigan State hosts Illinois. And barring another setback, the Spartans should have at least a few games to settle into some familiar rotations and rekindle some of that floor-slapping fire. (Presumably, we’ve seen the last of Russell Byrd trying to check Caris LeVert or Glenn Robinson III at the end of a half, for instance.)

It's the process

In fact, for all of Izzo’s perceived disdain for the Big Ten tournament, an extended run in Indianapolis could go a long way in helping the Spartans prepare for the NCAAs. Not to mention giving them one more crack at the Wolverines. This year’s tourney figures to be as unpredictable as any, but a Michigan-Michigan State rematch in the title game wouldn’t surprise Wolverines coach John Beilein, not in the least.

A week ago, he heard all about what was wrong with his team, chasing its first outright Big Ten title since 1986. But after a much needed rest and a 20-minute stretch of basketball that finally rattled the rafters inside Crisler, everything’s just peachy now, right?

“I laugh when people say ‘ups-and-downs’ and things like that,” Beilein said Monday. “They’re not ups-and-downs. It’s all part of the process. Sometimes the downs will be really what you need to go forward.”

His rivals up the road are counting on it.


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