- Jason King
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Judging from the amount of blood on the towel, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo assumed Adreian Payne's nose was broken as the forward walked off the Breslin Center court.
Branden Dawson was on the bench with an injured ankle, Gary Harris' back was flaring up -- again -- and Keith Appling had been rushed to the locker room with what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder.
When he looked down at his bench, Izzo couldn’t help but shake his head.
“I’m healthy, my wife’s healthy and our trainer is in great shape,” Izzo said. “Other than that, we’ve got problems. We are extremely beat up right now.”
Yet still, the Spartans found a way to beat No. 18 Minnesota 61-50 Wednesday.
Indiana might be the Big Ten’s most polished team and Michigan arguably boasts the most talent. But Michigan State’s latest victory over an excellent Minnesota squad served as a resounding reminder that the race to win the college basketball’s toughest conference will most definitely include its toughest team.
Michigan State, which improved to 19-4 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten, is tied with Michigan for second place in the league standings behind Indiana (8-1).
“When you’re hurt, you just have to suck it up,” Appling said. “There aren’t many games left. We just have to find ways to grind it out.”
The Spartans did just that on Wednesday. Trailing 25-20 early in the second half, Michigan State used a 21-4 run to surge ahead 41-29. Minnesota would never threaten again. Harris (15 points) and Appling (14) led the way for a MSU squad that didn’t commit a turnover until five minutes deep into the second half.
“It’s difficult to find a silver lining in a cloud,” Izzo said. “But that is probably why we won the game.”
Indeed, overall, Izzo said he was more frustrated than pleased with team’s performance. Michigan State was outrebounded 36-27 and failed to put away Minnesota when the Gophers went more than six minutes without scoring in the first half.
Heck, Tubby Smith’s team actually led 20-18 at intermission before coughing up six turnovers that led to 15 MSU points after the break. Even though Michigan State rallied and won the game, Izzo questioned his team’s on-court chemistry and singled out players such as Dawson, the freakishly athletic forward, for a lack of fire.
“This team is not going to be a good team until Branden Dawson plays with the energy that he’s capable of and until we realize that we’ve got to communicate better,” he said. “If that happens, this team has a chance to be better than I thought. If it doesn’t, we’ll be worse than I thought. That’s about as blunt as I can say it.”
At the same time, though, Izzo had to be encouraged by his team’s heart. Izzo thought Payne was finished after spending what seemed like a half hour in the locker room, where trainers tended to his nose following a second-half collision.
“It wouldn’t stop bleeding,” Izzo said.
But Payne eventually returned to the court. Dawson found himself back in the game, too, despite his injured ankle. And moments after being helped through the tunnel, Appling trotted back to the Spartans' bench, where he watched the final minute of his team’s victory. He said his shoulder popped back into place on its own moments after it was dislocated.
The most impressive effort, however, was turned in by Harris, who winced in pain all evening while playing with two injured shoulders and a bad back. Harris finished with a team-high 15 points and four assists in 36 minutes.
“I had no choice but to play,” Harris said. “If I would’ve gone to the bench, my back would’ve stiffened up and gotten worse.”
Izzo paid Harris quite a compliment in the postgame news conference.
“He’s tougher than nails in his heart,” Izzo said. “He could barely go. I’m overdoing it and normally I don’t do that. I just think it was one of the guttier performances of my career.”
That’s saying something.
No program in the country is associated with toughness as much Michigan State and no coach more than Izzo, whose NCAA title in 2000 was the last national championship won by the Big Ten.
Judging by his angst after Wednesday’s game, Izzo would probably laugh if you mentioned this year’s Spartans as potential title contenders. At least right now. But the notion really isn’t that far-fetched. The Spartans are injured, worn out and depleted -- yet they’re still winning.
It’s difficult to imagine things getting worse for this squad. Chemistry will be enhanced as health issues improve. In a few weeks, Michigan State could jolt into light speed like the Millennium Falcon.
As of now, we’ve yet to see the Spartans’ A-game.
“And we’re still 19-4,” Izzo said. “I’ve been 19-4 [only] three or four times in my career. I don’t mean for it to sound as down as it is. This is no doubt the toughest the Big Ten has ever been.
“Tonight was a big win for us, and I’m going to take it as a big win. But I’m not going to be one for fool’s gold. They’ve got to get better, and they will get better.”
Izzo just hopes it happens quickly enough to stay in contention for the Big Ten title.
And maybe even more.