Coach Tom Izzo contends that his history of physical practices and brutal non-conference schedules prior to the rigors of Big Ten play became tradition in order to help prepare Michigan State for deep NCAA tournament runs.
It's only fitting then that his first fully healthy squad in nearly two months will take the floor on the first day of March.Branden Dawson returns from a nine-game absence as the 18th-ranked Spartans look to win a seventh straight home meeting with Illinois on Saturday.Izzo said before this season that Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) had the potential to be a great team, but he had little idea of the plethora of injuries it would have to battle through in order to reach that level.The Spartans held the No. 1 ranking in three polls and boasted victories over then-No. 1 Kentucky, previously ranked Oklahoma and current-No. 24 Texas through their first 19 games. Their only loss in that stretch came to current-No. 19 North Carolina on Dec. 4.Injuries began taking their toll, though, as Adreian Payne missed seven games with a sprained foot and fellow senior Keith Appling sat out three with a sprained wrist that he's still playing through.The Spartans went 4-5 without Dawson, who was second in the Big Ten in rebounding at 8.7 per game when he broke his hand in frustration during a film session Jan. 23.Michigan State sits one game behind Michigan for the conference lead after falling to the Wolverines 79-70 on Sunday."I said all along, getting (injured players) back will be a bright spot, and then playing like the team they need to play like is going to be another," Izzo said. "Normality is not going to hit our team, (but) I still think we have enough different pieces to make a serious run at this league championship and beyond."The return of Dawson may help. He's expected to wear a brace Saturday, though Izzo said he isn't sure how many minutes Dawson will play. Appling fell on his injured wrist again Sunday, but the Spartans aren't trying to make any excuses for their recent struggles no matter their situation.Izzo said Thursday marked the first time every player on the roster participated in practice since the first week of January."Despite what we have going on as a team, the other team isn't going to feel sorry for us," said Gary Harris, who leads the Spartans with 17.9 points per game. "We still have to go out there and play and we still have to do the things necessary to win the game."Payne missed the first meeting with Illinois on Jan. 18, when Harris scored a game-high 23 points and Appling and Denzel Valentine added 15 apiece in a 78-62 road win.That defeat was part of a dismal stretch for the Fighting Illini (16-12, 5-10) that saw them drop 10 of 11 from Jan. 8-Feb. 15. They've won two straight since, though, beating Nebraska 60-49 on Wednesday as freshman Kendrick Nunn scored a team-best 13 points.Nine of the 10 players who entered the game scored, and Illinois held the Cornhuskers to fewer than 50 points for the first time all season."When you get 10 guys contributing like that, I thought we did some really good things," coach John Groce said. "We've talked all year that this is a team that needs everybody. I'm happy for these guys because they've continued to fight."Illinois hasn't beaten Michigan State on the road since March 4, 2006.