The opponent mattered as much as the circumstances Tuesday night.
Although Michigan State had the luxury of competing in East Lansing, it still faced a viable Indiana team that’s searching for an identity. That’s always a dangerous predicament for a favored home team because an opponent might find it midgame.
Plus, Wooden Award candidate Adreian Payne missed the matchup due to a sprained right foot that reportedly could sideline him for the next two weeks.
The Hoosiers were combative in their hunt for a significant road win -- the only elixir for a recent loss to Northwestern -- as expected. But Michigan State emerged from the rubble with a 71-66 victory and a remarkable 7-0 start in the arduous Big Ten.
The Spartans continue to regroup when personnel limits threaten their success.
No Payne? Fine.
Gary Harris, a possible lottery pick this summer, scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half. Michigan State forced 18 turnovers against an Indiana team that continues to cost itself possessions and games with sloppy ballhandling.
The Spartans were down 46-41 with 11:51 to play. But by the 3:53 mark, they were ahead by 10. A few free throws in the final minute and the Spartans had proven, again, that they’re the current Big Ten kings and threats to reach Arlington, Texas, in April.
“I made no bones about it at the beginning of the year that this is one of those teams that I think has a legitimate shot,” Tom Izzo told reporters prior to Tuesday’s game. “And, I think that we've proven that we do. We could lose three games in a row and still prove that we do.”
That potential is tied to its overall health, though.
And the Spartans haven’t really been 100 percent all season.
That hasn’t stopped them from climbing to the top of the league and winning their last 11 games, following a loss to North Carolina on Dec. 4. But it’s still the lingering concern for the program.
Payne is out. Harris has dealt with an ankle injury -- he played with a bad shoulder last year. Travis Trice missed time due to illness. Matt Costello, too. Just three players saw action in each of the team’s first 18 games.
The Spartans are deep enough to tussle with any team in the Big Ten, even if Payne can’t go or Harris is hobbled or Trice doesn’t feel well. They’ve shown that multiple times.
Their ceiling is high. To reach it, however, Izzo will need a healthy roster.
Noah Vonleh is an NBA-ready freshman who’s gradually opening the toolbox and showing off talents that should compel scouts to slobber. He took advantage of Payne’s absence in a performance that carried the Hoosiers (13 points, 13 rebounds, one block, one steal).
Payne is a significant component on offense and defense for the Spartans. He’s agile enough to contain shooters and big enough to stop post players. Yogi Ferrell (19 points, 4-for-13) might have had even more trouble finding good shots with Payne on the floor.
Yet, they won without him.
Tuesday’s win provided more proof of Michigan State’s resilience. The best teams ignore circumstances and adjust.
But injuries -- especially if Payne isn’t available for a lengthy period or if he’s bothered by the foot injury for the remainder of the season -- could be detrimental in the coming weeks. The Spartans will play Michigan, Iowa (in Iowa City), Georgetown, Penn State and Wisconsin (in Madison) in their next five games. It’s a stretch that will either solidify their spot atop the Big Ten or jeopardize it, as conference frontrunners ascend.
An interesting transition is taking place in college basketball right now. The true contenders are beginning to emerge.
Arizona is a versatile juggernaut that would be a nightmare for any team in the country. Tyler Ennis has helped Syracuse stay on top of the ACC. And Joel Embiid’s presence might position Kansas to be the scariest team in the field of 68 come March.
In late January, squads often take shape and turn the corner, for better or worse. The overrated are exposed. The elite young teams tend to evolve this time of year as they finally reach a level of chemistry and maturity that they just didn’t have in November and December. The veteran programs win the gritty games and showcase the true value of experience.
Things begin to make sense in college basketball as February approaches.
Or fall apart.
The Spartans continue to avoid the latter scenario even as injuries affect their lineups.
If Izzo’s squad does what it’s capable of doing and wins the Big Ten and makes a commendable run in March, then the program will earn rightful praise for its ability to navigate this midseason turbulence.
But if this injury bug undercuts the Spartans, and if it refuses to relinquish its hold the rest of the way, then Michigan State’s year could end with disappointment and a question.
What if the Spartans had been healthy?