The Spartans appear headed to another Final Four, and not just because of the team's talent, which is considerable, or the coaching of Tom Izzo, which is always terrific. It is just time. Since Izzo took over in 1995, every player who has stayed four years in East Lansing has made it to at least one Final Four. MSU needs to play on this season's last weekend to keep the streak going.
It's fitting that while sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris is the Spartans' best player, two Final Four-deprived seniors control the team's fortunes. One is point guard Keith Appling, who must complete his transition from high school scorer to college playmaker. The other is center Adreian Payne, a 6-foot-10 shot blocker and rebounder.
Payne has many athletic gifts, but it took him the better part of three seasons to unwrap them. He has an undersized lung capacity, which has limited his stamina and minutes, but a lack of aggressiveness has been the bigger problem. The turning point came when Payne got into a minor scuffle with teammate Branden Dawson on a road trip to Penn State last winter. It wasn't much of a fight, but police were called, and Izzo suspended both players for the first half against the Nittany Lions. Payne finished with 20 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes, but Izzo was even more impressed with Payne's performance when he wasn't in the game. "He was so good on the bench," Izzo says. "He was encouraging teammates. He never does that."
After that game Payne took more shots, rebounded more voraciously and finally played the way Izzo thought he could. But Payne must be more willing to dominate down low. "He has a tendency to drift, but he is a very good shooter from the perimeter," assistant coach Dwayne Stephens says. "We just don't want him to live out there."
If Payne stays in the paint, Michigan State will stay in the title hunt.
The Nov. 12 game against Kentucky in Chicago may be a Final Four preview. And in one 15-day stretch, MSU faces five straight potential NCAA tournament teams: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Georgetown. But Izzo believes tough schedules lead to March success.
Player to Watch: Keith Appling
The senior point guard is really a scorer at heart, and sometimes he gets too caught up in one-on-one battles against other elite guards. He has worked hard at becoming a playmaker and getting his shooters the ball where they want it. If Appling can be a steady hand, Michigan State can win the national title.
Telling Number: 84
The Spartans return 84 percent of the scoring from a team that earned a No. 3 seed in last year's NCAA tournament.
Q&A with Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo
SI.com: How much does it help that role players Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice are the sons of coaches?
Izzo: Lots. Lots. Both of them could be starting. They definitely could have the disappointment of it. That's the Jud [Heathcote] rule: Find coach's sons. He said it all the time. I think that does help us right now. It helps us a lot.
SI.com: Is this your most talented team since the 2000 national champs?
Izzo: [Thinks.] That 2001 team ... remember, Marcus Taylor was a hell of a player, [Zach] Randolph, [Jason] Richardson, [Charlie] Bell ... you know what, though? Maybe, maybe. One of the most talented.