ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The line between excuse and explanation is very thin and mostly fuzzy, so Michigan State coach Tom Izzo goes nowhere near it.
“I have no interest in making excuses,” Izzo said. “But there is a reality.”
And that reality for the 13th-ranked Spartans, who travel to Ann Arbor on Sunday to take on No. 20 Michigan, hasn’t been kind.
That reality has looked like a slap in the face, a punch in the gut and a karate chop to the neck, yet they're somehow managing to not bleed out in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
Since the beginning of the season -- a season in which the Spartans have amassed a 22-5 record including an 11-3 mark in the Big Ten -- only eight times have the Spartans taken the floor against another team with their seven top players intact and in uniform.
And yes, teams deal with injuries. It’s a part of the game.
Michigan will take the court on Sunday without its preseason All-American center, Mitch McGary. But when the Wolverines lost him in December, they lost him for good and they learned to grow without him. Other players stepped in and stepped up. And yes, they had a game without Nik Stauskas and part of a game without Glenn Robinson III. It happens.
Coaches and teams learn to adapt without a top player. The great ones find ways to win. The good ones find ways not to lose.
But the problem for Michigan State is that once one guy went down and came back, the next injury or illness happened. A boot on one player’s foot became mononucleosis in another player became the flu became foot blisters became plantar fasciitis became a broken hand.
“You take the next-man-up theory,” Izzo said. “But I’ve never been through the next man-next man-next man-next man.”
The Spartans have had three games without sophomore guard Gary Harris. Seven games without senior forward Adreian Payne. Nine games without junior guard/forward Branden Dawson. Three games without senior guard Keith Appling. Two games without junior guard Travis Trice. Four games without sophomore forward Matt Costello.
It has gotten to the point that Izzo is just as worried about Valentine’s legs as he is Dawson’s wrist, because Valentine is the only player in that top group who hasn’t had time off, or rest.
That is, after all, one of the two silver linings that Izzo -- who hasn’t always looked for the silver lining -- has pulled from this unique situation.
One: His players have gotten rest and with that rest, once those players hopefully return, their legs will be fresher. If he can get his team fully healthy, the Spartans should have the most well-rested legs of any team in the Big Ten tournament.
And two: He now has depth. Depth by necessity, yes, but depth, nonetheless. Players like Valentine and Schilling, Costello and Harris have stepped into roles they might not have had if these injuries hadn’t happened.
But that doesn’t mean it has been an easy season. The games, what the fans get to see out of the team once or twice a week, are one thing, but Izzo has fretted over this in practice day in and day out.
Of the 90 to 95 practices MSU has had this season, Izzo said the Spartans had all seven of their top players practice only 10 times. At least 25 times they’ve had to practice missing at least three of their top seven.
But in those 10 practices when they were at full strength, Izzo couldn’t help but think ahead. In those 10 practices, he saw what this team had. No, it’s not a huge sample size, but it’s enough for Izzo to know he has the pieces of a team that, if healthy, could make a Final Four run. He should know. He has done it six times.
There’s still a lot of season left, but Izzo says this team has the best shot to get to the Final Four of any team he has had. The next step is Michigan and then a week off, maybe some time to really get everyone back.
And without the myriad injuries his team has gone through, Izzo might not have learned this about his team. Before, when it was just one player who missed time, it wasn’t as evident how far behind he might be when he stepped back on the floor, because other players made up for the loss in production. But now, with so many players coming back in at different times, he sees it glaringly.
One player returns and his skills might be where Izzo would like to see them in November. Another’s conditioning looks better suited to October. Another player, overall, looks stuck in December.
The key will be getting them all to play as though it’s March. Because by the time he’s able to have practice No. 11 with his entire team, it very well might be March. And that’s no excuse; it’s the reality Izzo is working with.
“I’m excited about the pieces,” Izzo said. “It’s just a matter of the puzzle now.”