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Despite injury ordeals, Izzo still able to keep MSU elite

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

The Michigan State Spartans are 20-3 and have matched a program record with the best start through 23 games in school history. On a certain level, in the grander scheme, this isn't that surprising, right? It's MSU, and it's Izzo, and he's one of the best coaches in the game. We expect Sparty to be in the mix for a No. 1 seed every other year, essentially. In 14 of the past 17 years, the team's won 20 games, and it wouldn't feel like a normal college basketball season if MSU wasn't threatening for a Big Ten title.

This is just the latest example of why Izzo's so respected for his acumen, and is another reason the 59-year-old coach will be profiled on CBS Sports' "Men of March" series, Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS and re-airing at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

But what I think's been lost just a bit in this really good season for Izzo's club is how they've been able to remain steady in the standings despite a rash of roster snags. I mean, do you realize how talented MSU must be to get to this point? Injuries and illness to the team have prevented the group from really playing a peak performance -- against the 12th-toughest schedule in the country. It's why many -- including myself -- consider the Spartans to be the best-equipped team to make it to the national title game.

"That does a lot to a team," Izzo said Thursday night of the maladies. "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, we've had all five starters out and it has been hard on me, my staff and the players. It is not one or two and it is the most strange – mono, the flu and these injuries that almost don't make sense."

In the past 18 games, MSU has featured 12 different starting lineups; the team's needed 13 different starting lineups in its 23 tips this season. Compare that to Iowa and Wisconsin, two Big Ten foes with good seasons going: both the Hawkeyes and Badgers have trotted out the same starting five for every game to date this season. (MSU plays at Wisconsin Sunday.)

Here was Sparty's starting five on opening night, back in November, the five guys who make up the best of this team: Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Matt Costello. Those five have only played together in 43 percent of MSU's games this season. Payne's missed seven games; Dawson's been out for five; Costello's had to be in street clothes for four; Harris has sat for three; backup point guard Travis Trice has missed two; and Appling sitting (wrist injury) on Thursday night in MSU's 82-67 win over Penn State was the first game the senior point guard's missed in his career.

A lot of those guys have missed a lot of practice time as well, of course. The only player averaging double digits in minutes this season and to have not missed a game is Denzel Valentine.

Yet MSU is 10-1 away from home and 6-0 in true road games. Five of those wins were by 14 points or more. It's won all three that have needed overtime to decide things. There's a reason why Izzo's called this his most talented team since the 2001 group that sent three guys (Zach Randolph, Jason Richardson and Andre Hutson) to the draft and a fourth, Charlie Bell, who wound up earning a paycheck for many years in the NBA.

"It has been hard on the players," Izzo said. "Costello gets used to playing with Adreian [Payne], but then Adreian is gone. You got to have partners. You got to have people that you understand where they're cutting and where they're going. I think we played three or four teams that in the last 19 games, they had the same starting five. That is hard on the guys, to be honest with you. But, give them credit."

Most teams couldn't handle injury attrition like this and remain a ranked team, let alone a three-loss one with an angle on a No. 1 seed still. If Izzo's able to get this team a top spot and make another Final Four run, we'd have to consider it one of his best coaching jobs ever. No question. And he's got about five other seasons to challenge that distinction.

 
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