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East Lansing — As Michigan State takes a quick break before getting ready for the start of Big Ten play, it's not exactly where it thought it would be through 13 games.

The Spartans (9-4) haven't won as much as they'd have hoped, falling in their three biggest games so far against Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame while suffering an inexplicable loss at home to Texas Southern.

It's left them with enough questions mixed in with at least some optimism considering they've been in every game.

"If we would have been 10-3, I would have thanked my lucky stars," coach Tom Izzo said after Monday's victory over The Citadel closed the non-conference portion of the schedule. "I would have thought that was an unbelievable start. Not that we couldn't have beat Kansas or we couldn't have beat Notre Dame, but what we went through, we got beat. We got wore down, we got beat at the end of both of those games. The loss (to Texas Southern) just leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but they earned the win. We didn't do the things you needed to do and they did. I give them credit, but we're not just a blow-everybody-out team. We're not going to do that. … We're not overpowering."

There are plenty of reasons why, heading into Tuesday's Big Ten opener with No. 15 Maryland, that Michigan State finds itself in this position.

There is no doubt depth took a hit when Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling moved on from last season, but health, or lack of it, has once again been a big factor for the Spartans.

Senior forward Branden Dawson missed one game because of the flu in November and was limited because of it during the team's trip to the Orlando Classic. And now Dawson is out with a broken left wrist, suffered in the win over Eastern Michigan.

Freshman guard Javon Bess played for first time against Eastern Michigan after missing the first 10 games with a broken foot and sophomore guard Alvin Ellis missed six games with a sprained ankle.

On top of that, junior guard Bryn Forbes played the first 11 games with a brace on his left hand after breaking a bone just before the season began.

Izzo knows how that will play publicly, and frankly, he's not worried about it.

"This team has been through hell. You guys have no idea," he said. "If it's an excuse, I really don't give a damn. It's the truth. It's hard on them and it's really hard on us and we're moving people around and we weren't that deep to start with."

While the Spartans have had very little rotation with players in and out of the lineup, causing them to go deeper — extended minutes for former walk-on Colby Wollenman is an example — and play guys out of position.

But it has also created a team that is out of gas, something that was obvious late in the losses to both Kansas and Notre Dame.

"I think I practiced them out of shape because we have not gone very hard for me," Izzo said. "We did not go two-a-days during most of the break. We've just been so beat up and haven't been able to do things. And I don't think we're in great shape."

That likely will change when the Spartans return to practice Friday as they will go through a "gut-wrencher" of a practice, Izzo said, and then continue to go hard until hosting Maryland.

But even if they are in better shape, the Spartans will need to shore up some things on the court. They've been one of the better shooting teams in the nation, though that has dropped the last couple of games, and they've taken care of the ball the last few games.

The biggest place Michigan State needs to improve, however, is at the free-throw line.

The Spartans are currently last in the Big Ten at 63.2 percent with Dawson shooting 43.5 percent and Gavin Schilling checking in at 41.2 percent.

While Izzo is still unsure of what he's working with, he's feeling good about the way Michigan State played late against The Citadel. It was enough, along with a healthier team, to have him feeling optimistic.

"This is the perfect time to get a break, get a chance," he said. "There's gonna be some brutal days because we've gotta make up for weeks that we lost but I think guys are excited about it, too.

"I like where I think we can get, I don't like where we are. And usually by now you have a better feel where you are. I'm excited about it. I think we really have a chance."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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