Feb. 7, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - On Dec. 11, 1999, Michigan State lost at second-ranked Arizona, 79-68, as Mateen Cleaves, his surgically repaired foot still on the mend, watched from the bench for the ninth of what would be 13 games. Afterward, Lute Olson, the Wildcats' head coach, predicted the Spartans would be better off learning how to function without their floor-leader extraordinaire in the long run.
Olson also compared MSU's situation to that of Arizona's in `96-97 when his team rallied through star guard Miles Simon's 11-game absence before going on to win the national championship. Olson proved prophetic the following April when the Spartans captured the NCAA title with Cleaves back at the helm.
Would Olson's theorem go triple, or quadruple, or even quintuple for this year's Spartans with so many key players missing so much playing time, and now point guard Keith Appling occupying a seat on the bench for the entirety of Thursday night's 82-67 victory against Penn State due to a creaky shooting wrist?
Check back in the spring.
In the short term, this much is known: Coach Tom Izzo's ninth-ranked Spartans weren't Adreian Payne-free for the first time in eight games, and they cruised to their easiest Big Ten home victory of the season against a team coming off impressive victories against Nebraska, Ohio State and Purdue.
The towering senior power forward appeared to be fully recovered from a sprained foot while scoring 12 points and pulling down three rebounds during 18 carefully parceled out minutes, though regaining his pre-injury fitness will continue to be an issue for a while.
"It felt good to be out there and be running," said Payne, his foot back in an immobilizing boot after the game as a precaution. "The muscles in my foot are a little sore because I haven't used them in a while. That's why I've got this boot on. I'm going to continue to try to rest it in the off time, do treatment and get it stronger."
Just as Cleaves made his triumphant return against the Nittany Lions in the 2000 Big Ten opener, Payne checked in against Penn State with 3:39 gone in the first half. The Breslin Center crowd roared upon his return in a way that reminded PSU coach Pat Chambers of Willis Reed hobbling back to lead the New York Knicks to a victory in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
Payne's first shot, a short jumper, went in for an 11-4 lead. He then missed a 3-point try and whiffed at a block on defense, but his tip-in of Travis Trice's off-target three made the score 13-8. His first stint came to an end with a pair of free throws for a three-minute line that showed six points on 2-for-3 shooting and a rebound.
"I kind of didn't think about it as much," Payne said of his foot. "The main thing I was trying to do is just go out and play and see how it felt, like if I made a cut, did it hurt? Because if it would have hurt, I probably would have told them to take me out.
"But everything felt good. My conditioning was good, but I just have to get it better because I did get winded out there during one stretch."
Perhaps the biggest development of the game was that the lift provided by Payne's return wasn't offset by Appling's first DNP (Did Not Play) of his career spanning 130 games.
The slack in the backcourt was picked up by Denzel Valentine, who had 11 points, 11 rebounds and six assists to just miss recording a triple-double. Red-shirt freshman forward Kenny Kaminski, virtually non-existent with seven DNPs for off-court issues earlier in the season, continued to rise to the occasion with a game- and career-high 19 points.
Gary Harris, slowed in non-conference play and the victim of three DNPs because of an ankle injury, was his usual steady self with 14 points and redshirt freshman forward Matt Costello (four DNPs, mononucleosis) turned in 10 points. Meantime, Trice (two DNPs, blister and flu), had seven of MSU's 22 assists on 28 field goals and no turnovers.
The Breslin Center crowd roared upon Payne's return in a way that reminded PSU coach Pat Chambers of Willis Reed hobbling back to lead the New York Knicks to a victory in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
Izzo said Payne looked a little lost at times because he had become so accustomed to having Branden Dawson on the wing before he got hurt. With Dawson out with a broken hand for the fourth consecutive game, Payne was forced to get acquainted with Kaminski.
"We got a little goofy at times because of the lineups," Izzo said. "When Adreian was in there it was good, his presence was great, but the last time he was in there, B.J. (Dawson) was here and we were doing different things. Adreian was trying to do that tonight, and the rest of the team was doing it the way we've been playing for a month, so we had some mistakes.
"(But) that's the way we were playing earlier in the year. We had a lot of assists. " What the Spartans, who moved back into a first-place tie with Michigan, look like at the end of the year with what Izzo hopes is an infusion of good health could be determined by how well they learn how to function in the meantime without a full complement of players.
"I don't want to make little of it, I don't want to make too much of it, but when you think about it, four of our best players, and all five starters, have been out," Izzo said. "It's not one or two, and it's the strangest (stuff): mono, the flu that lasted two weeks in Trav's case and then these injuries that almost don't make sense."
Izzo said Appling was crushed by missing his first game, but wouldn't hazard to say if his "toughest" player would be able to go at Wisconsin on Sunday.
"If he can play, he'll play," Izzo said. "But it has been hard on the players. You look at Costello and he was just getting used to playing with Adreian and Adreian's gone. Then Adreian's used to playing with B.J. You've got to have partners. You've got to have people that you understand where they're cutting and where they're going.
"Give them credit, they did a heckuva job under strange circumstances. I just feel good we're in the hunt right now after what we've gone through. That's what I told our players. You've got to be in the hunt before you get a chance to win a championship, and we are in a hunt. I don't think we're anywhere near where we're going to be, but I also think it's going to be hard to get there and get the smoothness back in this team."
Valentine, however, could already see Michigan State coming out of the fog based on Payne's return, alone.
"It's a big difference when you've got an All-American and future NBA player in the post," Valentine said. "Something good is going to happen. Either they're going to double and there's going to be somebody open, or he's going to get a bucket. Hopefully he can stay healthy and we can get everybody else back.
"Everybody needed to step their game up a little bit and guys did. It's not like we're terrible (without Appling and Dawson), and we're a good enough team even with a couple injuries to pick up the slack. It's not like Keith, A.P. and B.J. are going to be here forever, so we all have to step up when the opportunity is presented."
Empowerment, as Olson said, can be a powerful thing.