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To the front of the line

With Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson both out, other front court players have done well with their opportunities.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State has now played three games with both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson unavailable.  Payne has been out for seven games in total now, with signs he could maybe return this Thursday against Penn State.  This has obviously created challenges for MSU, as the offense has become even more perimeter-oriented on offense, struggled on the glass at times, and dealt with a higher number of fouls on defense.

But, as a number of observers have pointed out, it also has the silver lining of getting players who would otherwise be getting limited playing time more on-court experience against quality competition.  And there are some positive statistical indicators here:

--Matt Costello was a nominal starter to begin the season, but is now playing real starter minutes.  He's averaged 24 minutes per game with Payne out, and he hasn't exactly lit the world on fire offensively but he's maintained overall efficiency in the additional minutes: 7.0 points/game on 60% FG shooting, 5.4 rebounds/game (2.4 on offense), 2.0 blocks/game, and just 2.3 fouls/game.  He ranks second in the Big Ten in block percentage in conference play, leading MSU to its #1 team ranking in that category (along with steal percentage).  When and if MSU's big four all get healthy at the same time, Costello can do all the things you need from a center to round out a big lineup.  He's not going to be a true low-post threat this season, but he shows increasing signs of being able to finish in traffic when other players create for him.

--Kenny Kaminski shoots the rock.  Period.  After a mild slump (1-10 over three games), Kaminski went 3 for 6 on three-pointers against Georgetown and is still at 47% for the season.  He doesn't do much else--he still ranks dead last on the team in defensive rebounding percentage, although he's up to sixth in offensive rebounding percentage--but a stretch four who can knock down the three with at that kind of rate will be a major asset in the postseason, particularly against teams that play zone.  His defense has been non-catastrophic, which is good.  Also: Go to class, please and thank you.

--Gavin Schilling's totals for the last three games: 32 minutes, 9 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 5 fouls.  He's still very much a work in progress, but that's reasonable production against teams with legitimate bigs in Michigan, Iowa, and Georgetown.

--Russell Byrd is in the midst of a remarkable transformation from three-point specialist to defensive stopper.  He's played 37 minutes in three games.  The one three-pointer he made in that time was a pretty big one, but his main contribution has been as someone who can stick with opposing 4-spot players who play on the perimeter--most notably, Glenn Robinson III.

--Despite the start against Georgetown, Alex Gauna appears to be guy on the short end for playing time among the bigs.  He's played just 14 minutes over the last three games, positing 8 points and 3 rebounds (and just one foul!).

The rotation for a fully healthy MSU basketball team now looks something like this:

1. Keith Appling
2. Gary Harris
3. Adreian Payne
4. Branden Dawson
5. Denzel Valentine
6. Matt Costello
7. Travis Trice
8. Kenny Kaminski
9. Gavin Schilling

And you've got serviceable options beyond that in case of foul trouble or (PLEASE NO MORE) injuries in Byrd, Gauna, and Alvin Ellis (14 points and, gulp, 7 fouls in 32 minutes over the last three).

As much as the lineup has fluctuated to date, it's served to shore up the bottom half of that rotation list.  The back-up bigs have looked overmatched at times (particularly against Georgetown), but playing a primary role for a stretch should hopefully make those guys more effective as secondary players.