Real Spartans not here yet, so don't make too much of loss to Hoyas
FEB 01, 2014 10:15p ET
You could say that Michigan State, in losing to a team that had been on a five-game skid, doesn’t seem like the Final Four team we thought it was. You could say that the Big Ten, ranked second in conference RPI and projected to send half of its dozen teams to the NCAA Tournament, is an overrated conference. You could say that fans should panic in East Lansing.
You could say all of that. But that doesn’t make any of it true.
You know what I take away from Michigan State’s 64-60 loss to Georgetown?
From the biggest college hoops upset of the weekend, I take this away: Georgetown got a much-needed confidence boost after so many close losses. Bully for you, John Thompson III.
But for Sparty?
Not a thing. This was a close game against a hungry (though lesser) opponent. The shots didn’t seem to drop for Michigan State; I saw more rim-outs in this game than in any game this season. It was a non-conference game, a small hit to Michigan State’s RPI and utterly meaningless in the midst of Big Ten play.
More to the point, it was just one day closer to when the talented senior big man Adreian Payne will return to Michigan State – and it’s become abundantly evident over the past month that Payne’s post presence is the most important part of Michigan State’s shot at going deep into March.
Payne’s return from his sprained foot could be as early as Michigan State’s next game, against Penn State, and he ought to be joined a few weeks later by injured teammate Branden Dawson.
And until then, any hot takes about how good or how bad Michigan State looks is merely a context-free chapter of an incomplete story.
“I can’t wait till those guys get back,” point guard Keith Appling, who has seven points and six assists, told me in the locker room after the loss.
“They’re pretty much what makes us go. With those two guys out of the lineup, it pretty much changes our whole style of play.”
How? Simple: Appling told me it changes how opponents deal with Michigan State’s ball screen. Instead of Appling coming off a screen and making things happen, he runs smack into a double team. Opponents don’t have to worry about Payne and his ability to pick-and-pop and hit an open jumper. Gary Harris might be this team’s biggest talent, and Appling might be this team’s motor, but Payne is Michigan State’s most important player.
“He changes the whole dynamic of the game because we got a post threat, outside shot, inside shot, he can do it all,” Harris told me. “That just puts the defense on their heels more. Defensively, he’s a monster on the glass, gets all the rebounds. He’s definitely going to help us when he gets back, but until he does get back, we gotta figure out way to cover up for him.”
The minor takeaway from Saturday is that Michigan State hasn’t quite figured out how to get it done without him. A Georgetown team that’s not known for its rebounding killed Michigan State on the boards. Spartans coach Tom Izzo spoke of his team getting out-toughed. Throw in poor free-throw shooting – an ugly 56 percent – and you had a rather frustrated Izzo.
But only rather frustrated. As he put it in his first words at a postgame press conference, “disappointing but not upsetting.”
“It’s getting a commitment from all 12 guys, and right now we don’t have that,’’ Izzo said. “We gotta get it back. What I’ve said since the day I got this job, players play, but tough players win. … Today we got out-toughed. We really did. We got thrown around on the boards. We got posted up.”
It’s a problem, sure. But don’t think for a moment that Saturday’s loss was indicative of a highly ranked team that’s about to plummet down the Top 25 rankings, like Big Ten rival Wisconsin has the past few weeks. Payne will be back soon — Izzo said he’ll be back in practice on Monday. Michigan State will have a relatively easy stretch over the next three weeks, with the only ranked opponent being Wisconsin on the road next weekend.
By the time the Spartans get to their brutal last four games – they play Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State before the Big Ten Tournament tips off – they project to be back to full strength.
In other words, an utterly different team in every way from the one that dropped a neutral-site game to unranked Georgetown. This team is one of college basketball’s most balanced attacks, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
So don’t fret, Sparty. Losing two of your last three isn’t fun. If that happened in Lexington, Ky., the whole state would be engaging in heavy basketball soul-searching. But some losses are worth less than others. This was not a bad loss. And the moment Adreian Payne sets foot on a basketball court again, feel free to wipe it from your memory.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.