Michigan State’s injured frontcourt presents chance at redemption for Michigan

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 23, 2014

Having remained unbeaten in arguably its toughest stretch of the season, the Michigan men’s basketball team has one more storm to weather.

After beating then-No. 3 Wisconsin on the road this past Saturday and No. 10 Iowa on Wednesday night, the Wolverines’ focus shuffled to preparing to enter the beast that is East Lansing to take on No. 3 Michigan State on Saturday night in a clash of undefeated Big Ten foes with first place in the toughest conference in the nation on the line.

But on Thursday afternoon, news broke that Spartan forward Branden Dawson will be out four to five weeks after breaking his hand by slamming it on a table while watching film earlier in the day.

And it appears fellow forward Adreian Payne will join Dawson on the sideline after Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Payne’s chances of playing Saturday are “slim to none” after practice Thursday.

If Payne doesn’t play, it will be his fifth straight missed game due to a sprained right foot.

With the pair out, the Spartans (7-0 Big Ten, 18-1 overall) will have to rely heavily on guard Gary Harris — the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year — who comes into the game averaging 18.9 points per Big Ten game, the third-highest in the conference. In Payne’s absence, Harris has averaged 20 points and 3.25 steals. Additionally, a significant contribution can be expected from guard Keith Appling in the rivalry game.

The senior scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds in last year’s game in East Lansing, a 75-52 blowout win for the Spartans.

Down by as many as 31 points in the second half, Michigan never had a chance after Trey Burke got into early foul trouble. An even more telling sign of the extremity of the embarrassing loss was that all 15 Wolverine players got into the game.

“They punked us,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “They came out from the very start, and they were a lot more aggressive than we were. They were getting every loose ball, every rebound. They were throwing the ball in the post and we couldn’t do anything about it.”

With both forwards out, 6-foot-8 freshman Kenny Kaminski will most likely fill in for the Spartans. Kaminski’s 15 points on five 3-pointers helped Michigan State beat Minnesota in overtime on Jan. 11. Forward Matt Costello — who has played 20-plus minutes in three out of the last four Spartan games — could also play a big role.

While sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III says last year’s loss has “been on the back of my mind” and will help Michigan on Saturday, he also admits that Michigan’s losses from its non-conference portion of the schedule have helped the Wolverines of late.

“Like I’ve been saying, it’s a good thing we played Iowa State, Duke — the tough road games we have been on — to prepare for this game,” Robinson said.

While Michigan (6-0, 14-4) may have caught a break with Payne and Dawson likely out, it will still have to face “The Izzone,” the Michigan State men’s basketball student section with more than 3,000 students.

After being “shook” and “a little nervous to play on their home court” as a freshman last year, Robinson believes he’s more prepared in his second appearance at the Breslin Center.

“As soon as we got out there we heard boos and bad chants about us,” he said. “Especially as freshmen, you never expect that, so I think I’m a lot tougher mentally.”

What could make the road game an even tougher environment for the Wolverines is the fact that ESPN’s College GameDay will be at East Lansing for the national telecast.

With a lead in the Big Ten standings on the line, this game could once again prove to be the difference in March for these two teams — one team having formed its identity after an injury and one that must figure out how to bounce back after a setback.