By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT - At the beginning of the season, the presence of senior point guard Keith Appling and senior forward Adreian Payne made Michigan State a Final Four favorite. With just five games left in the regular season, the limitations of that same duo could keep the Spartans from realizing that postseason potential.
Throughout the tenure of head coach Tom Izzo, every player who has stayed four years in the program has gone to the Final Four. Appling, Payne and fellow senior Dan Chapman have not yet been, and the streak is in jeopardy.
For all Izzo's basketball wizardry, he cannot heal Appling's wrist, nor can he speed Payne's adjustment back into the lineup after missing close to a month, and he cannot conjure up more practice time for the team.
While all those situations hamper the Spartans, Izzo sees other problems, too, ones that might stem from the injury issues but nevertheless need to be fixed.
First of all, he wants more energy out of the Spartans (21-5, 10-3 Big Ten), who are currently tied for first place in the conference standings but have lost four of their last seven games, including three to unranked opponents.
"If we don't start playing with a little more passion – I think the hardest part, we played with incredible passion, Adreian comes back, and I think we just stood around waiting for him to do something," Izzo told reporters Monday. "He's got to learn to play with our guys again, too. He's out a month and just made some poor defensive decisions, and our break is not anywhere near where it was. It really was pretty good against Penn State. We just kind of walked it up the other night, and most of that was the guys taking it out of bounds and the guys down the middle. We've got to get [Matt] Costello and Payne playing better, and we've got to figure out where Appling is."
While Izzo said he had no clue as to Appling's status, it sounds as though the senior will not play if he cannot practice.
"Whoever practices is going to play this week," Izzo said. "When you try and move two and three guys around, if you don't practice, you can't throw one in. That's been a little bit of a problem for us that I think I'm really going to take a look at myself and figure out that I'm just not made that way. We've got to practice like we're going to play."
Izzo looked at a loss for words in trying to provide a status update on Appling, who recorded just two points and one assist against Nebraska after missing games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Izzo said there was no setback for Appling against Nebraska, presumably meaning Appling did not make the injury worse, but Izzo seemed unsure of whether the point guard would continue to play in games.
"He had no setback, but you saw him play," Izzo said. "He took a 12-foot shot and missed it by 13. That's not good. And like I said, he's a tough kid. I didn't see any setback, I just don't think it's going to be – AP's was a situation where we sat him out longer, it was not his wrist, he played with it before, we knew it was the plantar fasciitis.
"Keith, it limits his motion," Izzo continued. "Every time he passes the ball, you don't see any snap on it. It could get better today, tomorrow, the next day. It could still linger. I guess the next major decision I'm going to have to make if it lingers is shutting him down, shutting him down. I have no clue. It's kind of his call, how he feels."
Appling's struggles have been hard on the team, Izzo said. Though he still expects more from the guys who are out on the floor, he realizes the tough position they have been in because of the team's injury woes.
"The one thing we missed - we got punched in the mouth the other night now, we got punched, and we didn't respond very well," Izzo said, "but my punch-back guy, my toughest guy is sitting there not throwing any. We've got to get him back, but we've got to keep him healthy, so I don't know what to tell you on it. I really don't."
The lack of a response from Michigan State against Nebraska seemed to bother Izzo. He compared the Spartans losing the jump ball to the Seattle Seahawks scoring a safety on the first play of the Super Bowl after the Denver Broncos center snapped the ball over the head of quarterback Peyton Manning. From there, Seattle dominated, and it looked like the Broncos were not ready to play. That was Izzo's perception of what happened to the Spartans on Sunday.
Aside from missing Appling's 14.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, the Spartans are still adjusting to the return of Payne to the lineup after missing him in January and early February. Branden Dawson, who is averaging 10.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, has missed the last seven games for injury. Gary Harris, the team's top scorer, is mired in something of a slump, still putting up points but going 5-for-15, 6-for-13, 3-for-20 and 5-for-16 in the last four games.
Izzo said he still has faith in Harris, whom he said has been in the gym and in the film room, just as Izzo asks players to do when they are struggling. On a team that has some quiet players, Izzo said Appling had been doing a solid job communicating with players and that Payne had improved in that regard also before his injury.
Now, though, Payne needs to do a better job communicating with teammates for the Spartans to be great, Izzo said, but more than anything, it comes down to execution.
"All those are excuses," Izzo said. "When we lose a jump ball, we give up a 3, we turn the ball over and we miss four layups in the first half, I'd say that's more the reason than even leadership or anything else."
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