Feb. 14, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Matt Costello didn't come into the season with any delusions about what his role as a sophomore forward on Michigan State's highly ranked basketball team would be.
"My job was to defend, rebound and run," he said.
Although Costello had his own setback - a bout with energy-sapping mononucleosis - to overcome around the holidays, the demands on him and his fellow role players changed as injuries and illness mounted for MSU.
Instead of factoring significantly in Michigan State's quest for championships, Costello, combo guard Denzel Valentine, backup point guard Travis Trice and small forward Kenny Kaminski were charged by coach Tom Izzo to be the team within the team good enough to win the Big Ten.
The saying, "rising waters lift all ships," also applies to MSU's role players who kept the Spartans afloat during Payne's seven-game absence due to a sprained foot.
In his third game back, Payne paced the Spartans' 85-70 victory against Northwestern in the Breslin Center Thursday night with 20 points and a season-high 14 rebounds. But MSU's second team was largely responsible for the way the Spartans riddled the Wildcats, who had been playing some of best defense in the conference over the previous eight games.
Northwestern had been allowing just 55 points a game since its 49-43 victory against Illinois on Jan. 12, but couldn't contend with the Spartans' balanced attack even with senior point guard Keith Appling missing a third game in a row with an injured wrist, Dawson out for a sixth straight game with a broken hand and shooting guard Gary Harris still working his way out of a mini shooting slump.
Valentine continued to shine with a career-high 16 points, six assists and just one turnover; Trice had 11 points, six assists and zero turnovers; and Costello had nine points and four rebounds to go with Harris' 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the field. Meantime, Kaminski pitched in eight points on 4-for-7 shooting.
Trying to contain the versatile Payne was tough enough, but first-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins credited "their role guys" with making things even more difficult.
"It's not so much doing more things," Costello said. "It's doing what you do, better. When A.P. and B.J. (Dawson) were out, I had to defend better, I had to rebound better and I had to run better. It didn't mean I had to start taking threes, or coming off ball screens, or anything crazy like that.
"I just had to do my job, and do it better. That's what we've all had to do, and it's been working well."
So well that No. 9 MSU moved back into a first-place tie with Michigan.
Buoyed by the confidence developed under adverse conditions, Costello is in position to expand his role beyond defending, rebounding and running in the wake of Payne's return.
"It's been nice having A.P. back because he draws so many (defenders) and the lane is more open for me," Costello said. "I appreciate it and love him to pieces because I know how tough it is without him and B.J. in there. Having him back has been a great help."
Trice, who's the healthiest he's been since dealing with the flu and foot blisters earlier in the season, has made it possible for Izzo to resist the temptation of rushing Appling back onto the court before his wrist is as healed as possible.
Although the Spartans can't go indefinitely without Appling, Trice's emergence can put making the decision to bring him back off until the last possible minute.
"My mentality has definitely changed because I know I'm probably going to be playing the whole game," said Trice, who hasn't committed a turnover while handing out 15 assists in the last three games. "Due to injuries, I think it's kind of shown how really talented our team is from top to bottom.
"It's not easy when you've had the injuries they've had, when you're constantly shuffling. It's a testament to what Coach Izzo's done with the group. Whoever's out their plays at a high level. They're the standard of excellence in this league."
-Northwestern head coach Chris Collins
"Any time you can lose two, three of your starters and you don't have any drop-off, that's big. Our thing now is to try to get those guys back and keep this thing moving because we feel like we're getting better and we definitely want to win a national championship and a Big Ten championship."
Collins, whose credibility as an evaluator comes from being a former player and assistant coach at Duke, doesn't think those are outlandish aspirations even for a team as hobbled as Michigan State has been.
"They're learning how to play well together," Collins said. "It's not easy when you've had the injuries they've had, when you're constantly shuffling. It's a testament to what Coach Izzo's done with the group. Whoever's out their plays at a high level. They're the standard of excellence in this league.
"I just think when you put all those guys out there, when you have Keith running the point, you've got Gary being that scorer and defender on the wing, you have Payne, and if you get Dawson back, and now the experience that these other guys have gotten, Costello, Kaminski, Trice...
"I hope they can get healthy because you never want to go through a year where you're saying, `What if we would have had our guys?' It would be exciting to see what they can become because I feel they're the best team (in the country) when they have all their guys healthy."
Izzo is trying to figure out a way to get his timetable to speed up from 33-and-a-third RPMs to 78 for Appling and Dawson. It's not completely out of the question that Appling could be back in some capacity for Sunday's home game against Nebraska and is hoping against hope Dawson returns in time for the Feb. 23 road trip to Ann Arbor.
"I love the fact that I think we have good players, we've got great guys and we have interchangeable parts, but we're still not functioning (at the highest level) and as guys come back it will change it again," Izzo said. "I like our chances if we can get everybody back to be a very, very good basketball team, which means you've got a chance along with those six, eight or 10 other teams.
"We're getting to the time of year when we have got to get a rotation down as soon as we can. It doesn't have to be Keith playing a ton of minutes, it just has to be a rotation. We do gotta practice with guys. To think we're going to be able to do that in the last week of the season and be ready for the Big Ten Tournament and the dance (NCAA tournament), that's not gonna happen."
If, and when, it does, MSU's role players will have made it possible.
"If there's a positive, I think Costello got better when we had injuries," Izzo said. "I think Trice, now that's he's not part of the injury group, is getting a lot better and Valentine is just getting better and better and better. He's playing a complete game and I'm really happy for him because you wonder why early in the season we were on him so hard - you kind of know what he's got to give."