EVANSTON, Ill. – So every now and again, Keith Appling’s right shoulder threatens to go where a shoulder should not be. It happened again Wednesday night as Michigan State’s senior guard accelerated in transition and pushed his dribble well ahead of him to pick up more speed. As he did, Appling’s occasionally non-compliant shoulder did something called “subluxing,” which basically means it nearly came out of the socket but didn’t. Which basically meant that every injury-weary Spartans observer had a mild coronary, but didn’t.
Appling was just one of two players to appear in every game for Michigan State entering Wednesday's meeting with Northwestern. And here an indispensable floor leader was, bent over at the waist inside the mid-court stripe, concerned teammates circling around. After a few moments, Appling straightened up, rolling his right arm to flex the shoulder. He kept doing so in a timeout seconds later. Spartans coach Tom Izzo stared at Appling as he walked to the huddle, but he didn’t ask if Appling was OK. He didn’t after the game, and he might not, ever. Appling didn’t come out, because the shoulder didn’t, either.
“It tried to,” Appling said with a smile after a grimy 53-40 win. “I was all right. I’m used to the feeling now. After it settles down, it doesn’t hurt as bad.”
For the potential Final Four contender in East Lansing, standard injuries mean a new injury standard. On Wednesday, with Adreian Payne’s right foot in a protective boot and Branden Dawson still recovering from illness, Izzo used his ninth starting lineup in 12 games. None of the changes were attributed to performance or knuckleheaded-ness. Some of the players who logged heavy minutes against Northwestern weren’t close to top condition. Given what the parts would look like as a whole, and given how rare the whole has come together, Izzo conceded it is one of the most trying, challenging seasons of his 19 on the Spartans’ bench.
“I hate to make an excuse, but I put it high, because there’s been so many (injuries),” Izzo said outside the visitors’ locker room. “We come out of the North Carolina game, I have four starters out of the next three practices. Four. Never had that in my career. Everybody has one or two, but I’ve had three, four, and guys not practicing, and guys practicing half-speed, there’s no timing. So it’s been probably the most difficult, because I’ve seen how good we can be. And it makes it harder. There are guys who got it worse than me. But for this year, it’s probably been my hardest.”
Of course, there is this: The Spartans are now 16-1. Never have hard times produced such glistening results. But managing grind-it-out victories against bottom-half Big Ten programs isn’t the objective. A championship is, and that will require a full complement of assets and cohesive play, neither of which was on display Wednesday. It is mid-January, and it is not hyperventilating to wonder when Michigan State will find the time put itself back together again.
“It’s tough, man,” Spartans guard Gary Harris said. “You’re not knowing who’s going to play when and where, never knowing who has what injury. A lot of guys moving around, playing positions they don’t normally play. It is tough at times. People mess up assignments that we normally do, but we’re doing something different. At the end of the day, it’s the next man up. We have to run with the guys we have and continue to keep getting wins.”
For now, appropriately enough, the most prominent issue is a Payne threshold.
Twenty minutes before tipoff Wednesday, the Spartans’ glowering 6-foot-8 power forward stood under the rim, shagging shots from teammates, the most terrifying ball boy in recorded history. He fired overhead passes back to the perimeter like cannonball blasts. One spiked off sophomore Trevor Bonhoff’s foot, eliciting a momentarily confused look, before Bonhoff thought better of complaining and returned to his business.
Payne will have another X-ray on his foot Friday, Izzo said, more to confirm things haven’t gotten worse than to prove they’re getting better. Though Dawson can be explosive and do a little of everything when he’s not sick, and though Izzo says Harris’ conditioning still isn’t to the point where the Spartans’ leading scorer (17.6 points per game) can handle the 35 minutes he played anyway Wednesday, Payne may be the linchpin. When he occupies his spot as a stretch four-man capable of producing anywhere -- 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds with 43.9 percent accuracy from three-point range -- all other components slide into more comfortable roles. When he occupies a seat on the bench, relegated to barking encouragement on key defensive series as he did Wednesday, it rattles the entire operation.
“One guy out of the lineup, guys -- it changes things when it’s a guy who’s versatile and can do a lot,” Izzo said.
The absence of Payne certainly had an affect Wednesday. Michigan State wanted to run, to push tempo to wear Northwestern to a nub. With another revamped lineup, Izzo felt players were out of spots and out of sorts triggering the break and filling lanes, so the Spartans totaled just eight fast-break points. Relegated to half-court slog, the Big Ten’s most accurate team from long range (40 percent coming in) lost its touch and its confidence and missed 14-of-16 attempts from three-point range.
There was enough to win, of course: Michigan State shot 50 percent on two-point attempts and committed just seven turnovers. But there were obvious problems as well, including one second-half sequence that began with an airballed Harris three-pointer and ended with Appling penetrating inside the arc and dropping a bounce pass to the mid-post ... where no one appeared to retrieve it. Appling expected someone to be there. Someone probably should have been there. But no one was.
“When guys don’t play the position as much, they don’t really know what you’re supposed to do in that spot,” Appling said. “Those are the type of things that happen.”
Said Izzo: “I’m frustrated by it, and my assistants keep telling me, you know, ‘Why should the guy be there? He’s never played that position. Why should he be there?’”
A month and a half remains to render those questions moot. Izzo would rather play without Payne and take a few losses so his senior anchor can be relatively pain-free come March. There is a valid argument to be made that a roster laden with veterans like Appling, Payne and Dawson, along with a second-year star in Harris, can rekindle a rapport more swiftly than other teams might. But until that happens, you have some raw nerves and you have Izzo in the locker room Wednesday night, apparently more or less apologizing to certain players for putting them in unfamiliar positions and asking them to take on strange, new roles.
Following that, Payne evidently stepped in and brusquely informed his teammates that they should be grateful for the chance and consider it an opportunity. Who would have thought, at any point for a Final Four-caliber team, that Alex Gauna would be the spark to victory that he was Wednesday with eight points and three rebounds in 20 minutes?
“I’m sure fans and everybody else weren’t thinking I was going to be the guy to go to,” said Gauna, who had started six games but averaged just 1.8 points coming in. “But certain games call for that.” Certain games under certain circumstances that a future Hall of Fame coach never remembers enduring before. For all of Izzo’s agonized expressions on the sideline, there is an angst that runs deeper, knowing what he has is too often splayed out in the trainer’s room. This may be his most difficult coaching challenge yet. But ask him what happens if all those injuries and illnesses vanish, ask him what kind of team he has in that scenario even beyond the one that has won 16-of-17 games regardless of those maladies, and he looks up with a twinkle in his eye and says, "I think it's one of my best."