It's been six games the Spartans have played without Adreian Payne, and it's because Tom Izzo is being cautious.
It's an admirable approach, for sure, but many have wondered the difference between the Spartans' injuries — and there are a lot of them. Keith Appling is playing through a bum wrist, and with Payne's foot sprain still keeping him on the bench, some have wondered if Izzo is doing the right thing not letting his star big man play through his pain.
Izzo is being cautious, but he defended that approach.
“If I could play AP — and I don’t mean cautiously — if I could play him, I’d play him," Izzo said at his weekly press conference Monday. "He’s a senior, yeah we’ve got the end of the year. Yesterday he was running for the first time with 80 percent of his weight on it. So are we being a little cautious on what we do until we’re sure everything’s fine? Yes. Am I sitting him back because I don’t care about winning the league? You all don’t know me very well if you think I’d be that stupid because I wouldn’t do that. I told you I’m worried about him first, his future second, the team third, and that’s probably the way it is."
The key fact to note is that the Spartans have lost just once in the six games without Payne — that epic showdown against Michigan at the Breslin Center — and Tuesday saw a pretty darn impressive Michigan State victory on the road against Iowa. The Spartans, who have fought through a plethora of ailments this season, continue to do just that. Payne's absence has loomed largest because of what he means to the team and how long he's been out. Compound it with the recently broken hand of Branden Dawson, and Spartans fans are looking for anything to get the team somewhat back to normal on the inside.
But this wasn't Izzo's decision alone. He and Payne have talked things over, and it's been a tough call for the coach to keep his star on the bench.
“We kind of mutually talked about it and looking at the big picture of things, where these games fall and what the Big Ten schedule is like, where the Georgetown game fits in and yet what is getting to be too long to sit out, meaning then do you get it back at the end because you’ve been a month out now," Izzo said. "So it’s been a tough, tough thing."
When will Payne be back? It sounds unlikely he'll play in the Spartans' out-of-conference game vs. Georgetown on Saturday, so the Feb. 6 game against Penn State might be the earliest return date.
“I’m hoping by the middle of the week he’s running on hardwood. I’m hoping by the end of the week he’s starting to cut and jump. And I’m hoping by the end (of this week) or next week he’s ready to go full go," Izzo said Monday. "He has been doing more and more conditioning ... but that’s not the same."