Tom Izzo is now talking with only the faintest trace of sarcasm about holding middle-of-the-night practices. Michigan State doesn't have classes this week, and in its coach's mind, it needs to focus entirely on rediscovering the form that made it a national title favorite for much of the season. As a result, Izzo growled Monday about scheduling some midnight madness in March.
“No rules,” the Spartans coach said at a news conference in East Lansing. “The NCAA can't slap me with anything.”
Regular office hours likely will prevail, but contemplating some extreme measures could be forgiven. It is getting too late for comfort for Michigan State, just as it is for Kentucky, two purported Final Four contenders who are encountering some unexpected turbulence as the NCAA tournament draws near. They met in the Champions Classic in November as the top two ranked teams in the nation, a showdown won by MSU and viewed by many as a potential prelude to a more consequential rematch in April. By the looks of it now, any meeting between Izzo and John Calipari in Dallas might simply be for the free Bruce Springsteen show.
The Spartans, who are still not completely healthy, enter the last week of the regular season having dropped six of their last 10 games and have fallen to No. 22 in the nation. The Wildcats, who are still not completely grown up, have lost three of five and are clinging to the last spot in the AP top 25.
What's become clear during those skids is that each of these teams have problems that must be dealt with, and both are running out of time to fix them.
Diagnosis: The high volume of injuries is more typical of underground fight clubs than basketball teams, and it has subverted the chemistry in East Lansing for months. Eight Spartans average at least 13 minutes per game and only one of them -- sophomore guard Denzel Valentine -- has not missed a game this season. On Saturday, Michigan State had its full complement of players for the first time in nearly two months -- and still lost at home to unranked Illinois.
Part of the reason is that even at least one key healthy Spartan is not at full strength. Keith Appling's ailing wrist has left Michigan State to play four-on-five when its senior point guard is on the floor. Appling averages 13.2 points per game for the season but hasn't scored in double figures since Jan. 28, though that span includes a three-game injury absence. In the four games since his return, he is 6-of-18 from the floor with 14 total points. He'd hit or eclipsed 14 points in a single game 12 times previously.
Appling is a vital cog but either he can't contribute effectively or he has no confidence in his ability to do so. In one sequence against Illinois last weekend, he dribbled toward the corner against the Illini's Rayvonte Rice. Rice jumped in front of Appling and simply took the ball away. He didn't poke it away or slap it loose or even wrestle it into his hands. Rice just took it.
Appling's obviously debilitating wrist issues notwithstanding, it was a glaring moment of weakness for a team that has not been as tough as Izzo's squads usually are. Michigan State's rebounding margin for the year is +4.8, good for third in the Big Ten but far below its league-best averages of 7.6 and 8.0, respectively, the past two seasons.
Appling will be a problem barring a miracle recovery, because there isn't time to rest the wrist for an extended period now. But Izzo alluded to increasing Travis Trice's minutes, which at least would keep an offensive threat on the floor more often. The rebounding margin has been eye-catching all season -- the Spartans were outrebounded in each of their first three losses -- but there is reason to suspect it could soon improve. Starting power forward Branden Dawson returned for the Illinois game after missing the last nine contests with a broken hand, and he is averaging 8.6 rebounds per game this season. Likewise, Adreian Payne has averaged nearly nine rebounds per game in his five most recent outings since returning from his own injury. If Dawson and Payne clean the glass like that, the Spartans can get back to owning the backboards and increase their chances of making a deep run in March.
Diagnosis: You might have heard the Wildcats are young – four of their starters are freshmen, a fifth is a top reserve and the other two players among their top seven are sophomores – and they're certainly not going to get older quickly enough to matter.
The bigger problem for Kentucky has been its offense. During this rough patch, the Wildcats have not taken care of the ball, not shot well from outside and, as Calipari notes, been almost impossibly bad from inside. 'The one’s were getting next to the goal, for some reason, we’re missing,” he said. “If you look over the last three games, I’m guessing we’ve missed over 20 one-foot shots. I mean right next to the goal.”
The ones farther from the goal have also been a problem. Kentucky is shooting 27 percent from 3-point range in its last three games and just 33.8 percent over its last six. James Young, whose 63 made 3s are 27 more than his next-closest teammate, has been frigid lately, making just under 31 percent from outside and leaving the Wildcats with no reliable perimeter threat.
Similarly, the ballhandling has been shaky of late. Five times in its last six games Kentucky has recorded more turnovers than assists. Three times the Wildcats have recorded single-digit assist nights. Point guard Andrew Harrison has just 34 assists against 25 turnovers in his past 10 games, four of which have been losses.
Shooting inconsistencies aren't likely to be worked out in March practices. As Calipari suggested on Monday, the Wildcats would benefit from getting into transition more and getting a few easy ones to fall. Confidence could swell from there. That's a lot of ifs in the equation, and if Kentucky starts shooting better -- its season field goal percentage of 45.5 is the same as Wichita State's -- its circumstances could change dramatically.
Still, the truth is that Kentucky is not as accomplished as its reputation often suggested. The Wildcats have been ranked all season long but have played five games against ranked opponents and lost four of them, with the only win coming at home against then-No. 6 Louisville back on Dec. 28.
For both Michigan State and Kentucky, there is precious little time remaining for reliable signs of progress to emerge. Still, both the Spartans and the Wildcats have the talent on the floor and the sidelines to make everyone take notice with very little notice.
“I know there's something left with this team. I'm 200 percent positive," said Izzo of his club.
"Where we are right now has no bearing on where we're going to be," Calipari said of his. If only everyone else could be as confident about either side.