On Tuesday, at his weekly press conference, Michigan State veteran head basketball coach Tom Izzo gave fans of his program some news they’ve been waiting to hear for quite some time.
“Looking forward to getting Adreian back,” Izzo said. “To what degree? He practiced last night, probably a third of the practice. I think he looked pretty good as far as moving on that left foot. It’s going to be another part of the process and I wouldn’t get fooled by him in a uniform.”
“How much he will play on Thursday, I wish I knew,” Izzo said of his star big man, who has missed the last seven games. “Maybe by Thursday morning I will know more because it’s going to be day-to-day but at least there seems to be some significant progress without any real soreness.”
To say the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten) have been bitten by the injury bug this season would be an understatement.
It’s been much worse than that.
They’ve been contaminated by them.
At the beginning of the season, the Spartans looked like they might shape up to be the most talented squad Izzo had ever coached at Michigan State, one that was eager to get back to the Final Four to continue Izzo’s streak of all four-year players making it to the prestigious collegiate basketball semi-finals.
The team seemed to be so good, the only thing that could conceivably stop them was injury, and more than half way through the season, they have certainly had their fair share, with the potential that this injury-riddled season could wind up being one of what “could’ve” been.
Throughout the entire season, player after player has gone down on the MSU Basketball team. Adreian Payne has missed seven games with the ankle sprain, Gary Harris (3, ankle), Branden Dawson (4, hand), Travis Trice (2, illness), and Matt Costello (4, mono). When all the injuries are added up, it results in just three MSU Basketball players having played in all 22 games this season (Denzel Valentine, Gavin Schilling, and Keith Appling).
That doesn’t even take into account the fact that the latter of these three, Appling, has been hobbled by a bum wrist the last couple of weeks, causing the senior point guard from Detroit to shoot just 31.8 percent from the floor over the last four games.
But ask Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo about the amount of games missed, and that’s not even the most devastating stat.
“I was watching the TV copy and they put a graphic up there and it said this guy missed 3 games, 3 games, 2 games, 4 games, 5 games,” Izzo said. “That looked impressive. That wasn’t what was impressive. Shocking, it was how many practices that those guys missed.”
For Payne though, who has missed the most time out of the clan of hobbled Spartans, injury first started to plague him in the late November, when he was ailed by plantar fasciitis. Eventually as the season wore on, and Payne continued to play through the injury, it morphed into something different, a sprained ankle.
Payne showed grit against Ohio State on Jan. 7. Initially not expected to play, he played through soreness, scoring 18 points and grabbing 6 rebounds to help the Spartans to a 72-68 overtime victory.
That was the last time Payne appeared in a contest. Over the course of the past seven games, the Spartans have gone 5-2 in his absence, scratching and clawing their way to victory in some, all the while coming up just short in others.
But now to get to answering the question the title of this article asks: What does Adreian Payne’s return mean for the MSU Basketball program?
First of all, it means the Spartans will be getting back one of the most versatile players in the nation. Prior to his injury, Payne’s prominence was rising to that of a both a 1st team All-American and potential lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Payne, who was averaging 16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1 block, is a player that can go both inside and out, play on the offensive side of the ball as well as defend. Anytime a team loses a player the caliber of Payne, they’re going to suffer some ups and downs.
If there is a silver lining to look at in all these injuries though, it’s that this adversity they’re going through right now could end up helping in the future. It’s given other players the opportunity to come in and step up, players that normally wouldn’t be getting any game time at all have been given the chance to come in the game and shine.
Players like redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski, who has emerged as a spot on three point shooter or guys like freshman Alvin Ellis III, or sophomore Matt Costello, all guys who have shown the ability to make some things happen, making Michigan State an even deeper team in the future, which should give Izzo more confidence in his bench should he have to go there if a starter gets in foul trouble come March.
But as Payne returns, and Dawson does so as well 3 to 4 weeks down the road from now, the question becomes this: Will Michigan State have enough time to get their chemistry together, find their rotation and gel come NCAA Tournament time?
“It’s also going to be us learning how to play with him again,” Izzo said. “We go back to some of the same problems we had — do we switch four, do we switch five, do we switch three. There’s so many little things, like how we play ball screens with his ability. We might switch four with his ability where we haven’t been able to lately with him and (Branden) Dawson out. We’re going to have to re-learn how to play and that part of it is going to be hard.”
If Izzo can find a way to make it work, then watch out, this team is good. But if both Payne and Dawson return and struggle to relearn their roles with the team, it could mean an early exit in the NCAA Tournament.