The Michigan State Spartans have had their fair share of demoralizing defeats this season. Granted, the Spartans depressing demise in these competitive affairs were a result of being without their dominant starting roster (Brandon Dawson, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris). Yet, despite these debilitating absences that would send most teams running for the hills, Tom Izzo refused to make excuses for his teams failures and went to battle valiantly with what remained of his roster. Although the results weren’t always pretty, the Spartans still found ways to win games that most critics deemed insurmountable. However, the Spartans bided their time effectively and slowly regained each crucial piece to their illustrious team identity. In last night’s emotional victory over the offensively supercharged Iowa Hawkeyes, the Spartans displayed their immense potential when all of their key athletic contributors were on the court simultaneously and the results were nothing short of mesmerizing.
Although senior guard Keith Appling had been apart of the Spartans starting roster for four games prior to the victory over the Hawkeyes, he had yet to come to life as the reliable shooter he had been all season long. While Appling struggled to find his groove initially as he scored a combined total of just 14 points in four games, it was only a matter of time until his fiery perseverance exploded into a lights out shooting extravaganza. Despite Appling’s slow start in the first half against the Hawkeyes, his determination to rediscover his dominant potential was on the verge of becoming a performance worthy of a final home game showdown. For the first time since his return, Appling rediscovered his dynamic groove as both a deadly perimeter shooter (he went 2-3 from beyond the arch) and as a reliable field goal contributor (4-7 from the field).
Yet, even with Appling’s impressive reemergence, stout forward Adreian Payne’s return was even more miraculous and dominant. Even though Payne was only able to garner 12 points for his team in his return against Penn State, he didn’t waste any time by being cautious after missing seven straight games. Rather, Payne simply concentrated on strengthening one aspect of his game after another. Once he reestablished his shooting prowess, Payne returned to form as the Spartans designated rebounder (he averaged 7.7 RPG before his injury, has maintained an average of 7 RPG since then).
However, while the Spartans fallen veterans get the lions share of the credit for their contributions prior to their injuries, sophomore guard Denzel Valentine got his chance in the limelight to carry a team that was in desperate need of a distinguished and gifted guard. Since his freshman year, Valentine has improved as both an essential rebounder (he garnered 6.2 RPG this season) and as a streaky yet poised shooter (he has averaged 50% from the field in his last four games and 9.8 PPG).
While the discovery of the underrated Valentine was crucial in keeping the Spartans competitive in their merciless conference, the return of senior Gary Harris was vital to the Spartans rejuvenation process. Although Harris may not be the most accurate guard in the Big Ten Conference (he shoots 42.1% from the field) he is by far one of the most prolific scorers that can both drive to the basket while using his hyper vigilance to snatch the ball away from lackadaisical opponents (averages two steals per game). In his last five games, Harris has developed a perimeter shooting skill set that is unlike anything he has ever done before in his collegiate career (only averaged 35.1% from the perimeter throughout the season while he as averaged 52.4% from beyond the arch in his last five games). If Harris can continue to be this consistent as a versatile offensive and defensive contributor, he could be the crux of a deep tournament run by a surging Spartans team that is eager to prove what they can do when everything is on the line.
In the end, the Spartans have managed to not only regroup successfully; they have done so under arduous circumstances. While most teams would give in to this type of oppression, the Spartans fought through their adversities to become even stronger and more determined to succeed than they were before. Although the Spartans compelling comeback story has yet to fully unfold, if the beginning of this tale is any indication of this teams future triumphs, they may just have what it takes to win it all.