Seniors Adreian Payne, left, and Keith Appling, right, are on a quest to keep alive a string of every four-year player under Izzo reaching the Final Four at least once. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — When coach Tom Izzo flips the calendar Saturday morning, he’ll see something he has waited for all season.
It will read March.
That’s what the No. 18 Michigan State men’s basketball team has been playing for since it started practicing in late September. Actually, it’s what the Spartans have been playing for since they lost to Duke in last year’s Sweet 16.
Michigan State hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2010, and seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are on a quest to keep alive a string of every four-year player under Izzo reaching the Final Four at least once.
Early this season, the Spartans looked like a team that was already making its reservations for AT&T Stadium in Dallas in early April. They were 18-1 and had been ranked No. 1 for three weeks.
Then the injuries, which had already been overcome on a smaller scale, truly started to take over.
On Jan. 4, Michigan State won at Indiana. Since then, the starting lineup has been in a state of disarray as Payne, Appling and Branden Dawson have each missed significant time, and Michigan State has gone 4-5 and tumbled down the rankings.
But with three games left in the regular season, beginning Saturday at home against Illinois, the Spartans finally have everyone back. Dawson will return after missing nine games with a broken hand, and the Spartans didn’t have a game during the week, leaving them refreshed for a final push headed into the postseason.
“The battle cry to my team is that we have had the week off, a chance to improve ourselves a little bit and spent two days doing nothing but work on Michigan State,” Izzo said. “With all that they have been through I think it is time to start looking forward and I think that is hard to do. … We are going to concentrate now on what we can control, and that is about it.
“It will be as together as we have been probably since December second or third. Even (Gary) Harris was hurt back then, and I think after the fourth we didn’t even have (Matt) Costello. It’s been a long time.”
It has been a while, but it hasn’t kept Michigan State from pointing toward its ultimate goal.
The hope for a regular season Big Ten championship likely ended with last weekend’s loss at Michigan, but the focus for the Spartans now is using the last three games before the Big Ten tournament to rediscover the rhythm they had early in the season.
“The main thing is to try and get everybody back together, get the chemistry back after making so many adjustments throughout the season,” Payne said. “We’re finally back together and we’re starting to look forward to getting back on a roll, getting back on track.
“With (Dawson) coming back and Keith starting, we’re getting our rotation and getting a better feel for each other.”
How long it could take to get that better feel remains to be seen. Three games isn’t a lot of time, but it could be enough if coupled with a nice run in the conference tournament.
But the schedule has helped. After the break this week, the Spartans don’t play again until Thursday before closing next Sunday at Ohio State. After that, it’s likely another four days off before beginning the conference tournament.
“The scheduling I think works to our advantage, as far as getting guys more reps, more playing time together, more practice time together,” Izzo said. “But then I’ve got to make some tough decisions, too. Who was in my playing group is not going to be in it right now and how do you make people earn it? It's been interesting, but I think very doable, very doable.”
And if it gets done, Izzo still believes the best is yet to come for Michigan State.
“I think this team will make serious noise here in the next three weeks,” he said. “How fast? We know it’s not going to be one week, but if it’s two or three weeks, we’re in trouble the other way. We’ve got some timeline pressures on us, there’s no question about it, but thank God some of them are veterans, juniors and seniors and hopefully we can mix it back up with our younger kids.”