You know the story by now. Michigan State has had injuries. A lot of them.
And while Tom Izzo's bunch isn't using the year of poor health as an excuse — say, for example, in Sunday's 79-70 loss to Michigan — the topic is a tough one to ignore.
"I've never been through anything like this," Izzo said after Sunday's loss. "When you add up the number of people that have missed practices, we're into the 150s. We've had years when we were at 10, 12, 15. So if I'm not handling it totally properly, it's because this is new territory for me, too. But there's been nothing close to this. I'm hearing all these teams — Arizona, Syracuse — missing a guy. We've missed a lot of guys. I'm not happy with the way we played, but at the same time, I can understand there are going to be some points when everything's not going to go real smooth.
"I've never had anything like this, and yet I still believe we can regroup and do the things you need to do to make a run."
That's the hope Izzo has, and it's an opinion shared by many, as opposing coaches have routinely said that once the Spartans return to full strength, they'll be one of the nation's best teams. But, of course, the question is: When will they return to full strength?
Well, that moment could come soon. Izzo said at the end of last week that Branden Dawson, who broke his hand weeks ago while watching game film, could return for Saturday's game against Illinois.
Dawson is the last piece of the injury puzzle after the returns of Adreian Payne and Keith Appling over the past couple weeks. Get Dawson back, and the Spartans could be heading into the postseason at full strength for the first time in months.
But, according to Izzo, getting these injured players back doesn't instantly make things all better in East Lansing.
"Getting them back will be one bright spot. And getting them back and getting them back to playing like the team they need to play like will be another," Izzo said. "Appling's hand isn't going to be OK till the end of the season, that's the just the way it is. When you're hurt this late in the season, it's not going to get back to normal. Normality is not going to hit our team. I still think we have enough to do it without being normal, I really do. I think we have enough different pieces where we can still make a serious run at this league championship and beyond. But there's going to be some bumps in the road here if guys don't figure out that it's not the same as it was."
Appling is the perfect example of how just returning to the court isn't a cure-all. He's been bothered by a wrist injury much of the season, and while Payne has returned from his foot injury a dominant force, Appling hasn't been so lucky. The senior point guard has scored a total of nine points in his three games back. He averaged 14.7 points per game in the Spartans' first nine Big Ten games.
But while Izzo could rest Payne for nine games in the middle of the year, he has little choice when it comes to Appling as the season reaches its final days.
"Of course his wrist is still affecting his shot. He still drove and things like that. But I've got to get guys ready to play down the road, too," Izzo said. "Keith's going to have to play and play his way through. No, Keith is not 100 percent, he's not 80 percent. We all know that. But he's better than he was, and he's doing better.
"I'm going to keep playing Appling because I've got to play the guys I'm going to be playing down the stretch."