I want to start by saying that I have known this team has great potential all year. That's not to say I wasn't ever frustrated, as I have been very frustrated at times with this team, particularly close to the end of the regular season. I was starting to get nervous that ship could not be righted in time to contend for an NCAA championship, and worried that they could be headed for an exit during or prior to the sweet sixteen (not to say that it's not a possible outcome, because it is the NCAA tournament after all). Despite these anxieties, however, I did trust that given enough games, Izzo and the players could pull it together. My worry was that there simply wasn't enough time.
Then Iowa happened. Despite not having the greatest conference season this year, Iowa is a very talented team with a coach who could be at least considered decent. MSU played extremely well, and the final score fell short of being an indicator of how badly MSU dominated the Hawkeyes. Appling finally showed signs of life, hitting some shots. Dawson had a great performance. The team seemed to be on the mend.
At Ohio State was our next game, and while MSU did lose, I felt their performance warranted continued optomism on behalf of MSU's post season fate. Appling dissapeared for the game, which was a negative. MSU was held scoreless in the last 4 1/2 minutes of the game which was bad. However there were many reasons to be optomistic. Foul trouble kept some of MSU's best players off the court for large swaths of the game, and the back ups still kept MSU in it. Payne had a great game. Valentine played well when he wasn't on the bench for foul trouble, and consider his own foul trouble Dawson did very well. The end of the game was frustrating, and the officiating was as well, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that MSU had a week to prepare for the Big Ten tournament, knowing Izzo's competence, and that the team was showing signs of chemistry, and two of the three major players who missed or were limited for chunks of the Big Ten conference season played well in that game.
At this point my optomism was back in force. I was believing in this team again, and began to feel like the odds of doing well in the post season were starting to favor this team again. It stinks to lose the last game of the regular season, but there was a silver lining. At this point, Appling was a bit confusing. I still doubt that Appling will be scoring his pre-injury average soon, but seeing his performance against Iowa, there was reason to be hopefull. Against Ohio State, he did seem to do a lot other than score well. As far as I figure, having him provide a lot other than actual points, such as assists and leadership, while scoring a few points, is good enough for this team considering the offensive talent elsewhere. There was a strong feeling that they needed every game they could get prior to the NCAA tournament. Getting to the Championship game in the Big Ten Tournament was absolutely vital to this teams success.
Enter the Big Ten tournament. Seeing Northwestern defeat Iowa was a bit unnerving. I actually would have been more confident having MSU play Iowa, a team that they beat twice, seem to match up well with, and already was all but guaranteed an NCAA tournament birth. Northwestern on the other hand was a improved team, seemed to shoot well agaisnt Iowa, and needed to win the Big Ten tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. When MSU actually played Northwestern, however, they dominated the game early on, then managed the game well the rest of the game to end with an impresive margin of victory. They looked really good when they were more focused on scoring than running out the clock. The question remained, however, how they would look against Wisconsin.
With the Wisconsin game, MSU looked great through most of the game. Dawson seems to be back to his form prior to his knee injury, let alone the broken hand. Payne played well when he was on the court, but his proclivity for picking up fouls is starting to be an issue. It was his absence that let Wisconsin close the gap. Valentine is really starting to look like a special player. Harris is shooting well enough, and playing well. I would like to see him finish a little stronger at times when he is getting fouled, but I really don't find any reason to complain. Appling started to looka bit more confident, and he is definitely a net positive for this team. Trice is shooting really well. All in all this team is really starting to gel. I am thinking that if Payne can avoid foul trouble, this team is a serious contender, and can beat any team in the country. Another positive of this game is that MSU got retribution for a close loss suffered when they were still pretty beat up. My biggest question is whether or not Wisconsin got back into the game late because Izzo was trying to just manage the game and run out the clock, or if it was something else, perhaps, other than Payne's absence on the floor.
Now, MSU is playing in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game. It's a game they need to further gel and gain confidence. Even with a loss, this game will be a positive for the team. MSU now has the chance to get retribution for their two conference season losses to Michigan when they weren't as healthy. A win in this game will result in a better seeding, and take some of the sting out of the regular season losses for us fans. I am looking forward to attending tomorrow afternoon. Win or lose, this team is really coming together, and barring a blow out, should give us fans more optomism about this teams prospects.
Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, it's on to the NCAA tournament. Izzo has taken some teams deep that looking at their regular season performance probably didn't have any business ending up the final four. He also has had some Sweet 16 exits with teams that probably could have gone further had they not met certain opponents when they did (See Louisville 2012, Duke 2013). A lot of how MSU performs will be dictated by how much they will gel as a team, and how strong their desire to win will be. A lot will depend on what seed MSU gets, which bracket they will be in, who else is in their bracket, and when they will meet those opponents (For instance, it would be far better to face a good team on the first game of the weekend, not the second, due to preperation time. As a fan I hope MSU get's a favorable path this year (one could argue that in 2012 and 2013 they had the hardest road to the championship game, as they would have had to beat Louisville - the eventual champions both yeats in order to even make teh final four). If they don't get a favorable path, then I hope this team can pull it together, want it more than anybody else, and live up the potential we all can see from the outside looking in. I for one, am optomistic they will. They are peaking at the right time. Izzo is a great coach. Appling appears to be capable of providing non-scoring impact in a game, and is starting to take and hit more shots. He needs to shoot more, as his misses can result in good plays now that Payne and Dawson are both healthy now. Harris appears to be completely out of his slump. Yeah, it stinks he missed the buzzer beater against Ohio State, but he's providing more than enough on both ends of the court. Valentine is looking more and more impressive, is looking more fluid, is making less mistakes, providing good defense, shooting way better, passing the ball amazingly, rebounding well, and all around is really looking special. Trice is shooting well, and seems to be settling back into his role well. Dawson is looking amazing. He is looking better than he was prior to the broken hand. I think he's playing better now than he did prior to his knee injury. Payne is looking great when he isn't following. His endurance seems better, but that could be a by product of him sitting out due to fouls, and at times he looked tired when he committed fouls. He really needs to cut down on stupid fouls,( such as fouling a guy going in for a lay up due to an earlier defensive lapse - it's going to be two points or two free throws. He may as well not pick up the foul). Beyond that, our bench hasn't seemed amazing lately, although I am happy with Kevin Kaminki's performance. It's tough for me sometimes with Costello, as I see his potential. Shilling has looked better, but in the last game seemed to take a step back in some regards. Byrd seems capable of providing a small amount of offense while providing okay defense (sometimes he just gets burned), Ellis III in my opinion has good potential. I'd like to see him get a slightly expanded role. Everybody else seems to be sitting even more than the aformentioned players, but there are a few players there that can provide some quality minutes (such as Guana) but must either be not playing well by Izzo's standards, not be viable by his standards, or not doing enough in practice to deserve playing time. I think MSU has quality depth, players who can score off the bench (Trice, Kaminski), as good of a starting 5 as anybody in the county, a HoF coach, and I for one could see them win it all.
I just want to make a quick aside to close this. MSU's record is very respectable. If MSU wins tomorrow, it's record will be identicle to Michigans. It did this while having 6 of it's top 7 (or at least 8) contributers miss multiple games each, with varying periods of time where they were playing less than their previous level. The Big Ten, top to bottom, is better than it was last year. I think we are seeing the effect of the Big Ten's reputation for basketball start to lead to the teams at the bottom being stronger than they were before. I think that despite the fact nobody trully dominated the Big Ten, that the top 3 or 4 teams are very good teams, and with the exception of Michigan are underrated. I think MSU is at least deserving of a 2 seed. Yeah they didn't go undefeated, but they also didn't play in the MAC, WAC, or Mountain West. A lot of what the rest of the season looks will depend on the road through our region of the bracket, but I am as confident as anybody else in this team's ability to make a deep run this season.