March 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Matt Charboneau

With so much at stake, confused Spartans play like strangers

East Lansing -- Week after week, Tom Izzo warned things would not be easy.

His Michigan State team, once ranked No. 1 in the nation, has been dealing with multiple injuries throughout Big Ten play and counting the days until it would have all of its players back on the floor.

When that happened, the belief from many was the Spartans would regain the form they had early in the season and put a 4-5 stretch in the rearview mirror.

That day finally came on Saturday afternoon against Illinois. And unfortunately for the Spartans, their coach was proven right in a 53-46 loss, the lowest offensive output of the season for Michigan State.

The players were all back, but the team looked disjointed.

“There wasn’t going to be a magic wand waved today that everybody would be back to normal,” Izzo said. “It just doesn’t work that way. … It’s a little tough. I’m concerned, but I’m not shocked. I’m disappointed in our effort, not disappointed in our performance as far as our skills go.”

But even Izzo couldn’t have predicted this. It was a game he called a joke and questioned the energy his players had, saying it was an “all-time worst.”

There were some highlights, one being the return of Branden Dawson -- the final missing piece for Michigan State. He was out nine games with a broken right hand but was back on Saturday, playing 25 minutes, grabbing seven rebounds and scoring six points.

The junior forward had plenty of energy, but any sort of cohesiveness on the floor was nonexistent. Adreian Payne, who missed seven games with a sprained foot but has been back for as many, was the biggest mystery. He scored just four points and turned the ball over four times.

“I don’t think I was as active as I could have been,” Payne said in a significant understatement.

Out of sync

It helped lead to frustration that was seen late in the loss at Michigan last weekend and was again evident against Illinois. As the turnovers piled up – Michigan State committed 16 – so did the confused looks and slumped shoulders.

Quite frankly, the team on the court for Michigan State looked like strangers at times. Denzel Valentine, who has been one of the more consistent players, turned the ball over five times. Keith Appling, who is still not 100 percent with a wrist injury, handed it over four times.

And that might be one of the biggest reasons the Spartans looked woefully out of sync. Their point guard is nowhere near what he was just a few weeks ago before missing three games.

“Keith Appling is a major problem right now because he can’t do what he could do,” Izzo said, “so they’re backing off of him and there’s nowhere for him to go. … We had no break and that’s where Keith’s effective. He’s not effective in the half court. He’s getting better. He actually had a pretty good week in practice compared to the weeks before that. Compared to how he was playing at the beginning of Big Ten season, he’s not there.”

And the chance for him to get there is dwindling. Izzo said earlier in the week there was enough time for everything to come together. The way the Spartans played on Saturday might have some folks wondering.

Wake-up call?

But even through his disappointment, Izzo was not deterred. He has remained steadfast in his belief in this team, even saying it reminds him of the 2005 squad that had tough losses against Wisconsin and Indiana in the regular season and lost to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Many expected a quick exit in the NCAA Tournament and instead Michigan State ended up in the Final Four.

“Maybe a slap in the face is good for us,” he said. “Maybe that’ll wake us up.”

If they follow the same path as the 2005 team remains to be seen. Some fellow Spartans were around Saturday to help out. Travis Walton spoke to the team and Austin Thornton was in the locker room well after the game had ended.

The Spartans say they are now circling the wagons. It’s them against the world, and maybe that’s how it will have to work for them.

“At the end of the day we only have those people in here and a few people in the building that support us no matter what,” Gary Harris said. “That’s who is sticking behind us and that’s who we’re rolling with.”

Harris went on to say if Michigan State wins a Big Ten championship and a national championship, all of the current frustrations will be forgotten.

He’s right about that, but as the Spartans have learned this season, nothing is guaranteed, especially for a team that is playing far from a championship level.

Magic wand or not.

Adreian Payne, who had four points and four turnovers, gets trapped by the Illinois defense. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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