Mercurial MSU basketball.

Michigan State G/F Branden Dawson dunks in front of Minnesota's Oto Osenieks in the first half of their conference opener in Minneapolis, MN. (AP Photo - Andy Clayton King)

Michigan State G/F Branden Dawson dunks in front of Minnesota’s Oto Osenieks in the first half of their conference opener in Minneapolis, MN. (AP Photo – Andy Clayton King)

As a student, Michigan State basketball games were often just as frustrating as they were entertaining. Head coach Tom Izzo never led a flashy group, but a steady one. There were definitely times when the play was ugly and it elicited a few groans from the crowd. Bad turnovers, missed free throws and terrible shot selection were just a few things that caused me to want to throw my phone a time or three.

Still, Sparty won way more than they lost, and that is still the case. The 2012-13 Spartans recently fell out of the top 25, but have an 11-3 overall record, 0-1 in-conference. They lost their season opener to Connecticut by 4…in an air base in Germany, followed that with a neutral-site win over top-10 Kansas, struggled in a few wins before losing on the road to Miami, and then struggled in a few more wins before being outplayed by Minnesota in a 76-63 road loss on Monday in both teams’ conference opener. It’s easy to see that the common theme for Sparty this season has been struggle.

Five-star freshman shooting guard Gary Harris has been up and down, playing three good and three bad games before a decent performance against Minnesota. Junior PG Keith Appling is averaging career highs in points and assists per game, as well as field goal percentage. However, the speedy floor leader is turning over the ball more than ever before, and was terrible down the stretch Monday, going scoreless on 0-6 shooting and turning the ball over twice in the last 9:30 of regulation. Sophomore G/F Branden Dawson has recovered well from the torn ACL he suffered in last year’s regular season finale, but he has played from the 2 to the 4 and it doesn’t seem to be paying huge dividends just yet.

Coach Tom Izzo panicked after the late-November loss to Miami and did away with the novel experiment of starting two legitimately sized and skilled bigs at the 4 and 5 spot, but has revisited the notion recently. Senior center Derrick Nix averages 9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52% from the floor. Junior power forward/center Adreian Payne averages 8.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 58% from the floor. Both are solid free-throw shooters as well. They’ve also both had more than a few moments of inconsistency, but I firmly believe a head coach should play his best players as much as possible.

The rest of the team has been fairly ho-hum, with guys like  freshman guard Denzel Valentine and sophomore guard Travis Trice chipping in here and there. 2012 Michigan Mr. Basketball Matt Costello still hasn’t made an impact, sophomore guard Brandan Kearney decided to leave the team over the holiday break, and Michigan St. lost out on Chicago native Jabari Parker to Duke before the holiday season.

Despite the number of wins, the 2012-13 Spartans sure haven’t made things easy. They’re one of the worst teams in the nation at shooting the three and turning the ball over. While Sparty shoots the ball well from the floor overall (47.6%, 24th in the nation), they still struggle to score (70.2 PPG, 126th in the nation). Disturbingly close wins have been the case in victories against Boise St., Oakland, Louisiana-Lafeyette, Loyola, Bowling Green and a down Texas team. Playing close games against good mid-majors is somewhat acceptable. Playing close games against teams that are hoping just to be one of the last invited to the NCAA tournament is another.

Sparty’s next four games against Purdue, Iowa, Nebraska and Penn St. shouldn’t be that much of a problem before the team faces another test when 8th-ranked Ohio St. comes to town on January 19th. The way they have looked so far, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose the first four and somehow defeat the Buckeyes. MSU basketball has been just that maddening to date. However, Big 10 basketball as a whole can be downright confusing. Purdue, who Sparty plays today, beat a previously unbeaten (and overrated) Illinois squad at home on January 2. This is the same Purdue team that lost to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan, and struggled with William & Mary. It’s almost customary to see such a raw version of the Michigan State men’s basketball team at this point, but I still hope that the ship is righted by March.

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