Judging Michigan State's performance during its non-conference slate is more complicated than giving it a simple letter grade according to coach Tom Izzo, who has shuffled his rotation numerous times in the wake of injuries.
Seemingly at full strength for the first time in weeks, the fifth-ranked Spartans open Big Ten play Tuesday on the road against Penn State and its high-scoring backcourt.Michigan State (11-1) earned the nation's top ranking after beating then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 12, but it's had its struggles since then -- most notably a 79-65 home loss to North Carolina on Dec. 4 that Izzo said was one of the most embarrassing of his career.Injuries have taken their toll as well. Gary Harris (ankle) missed three and came off the bench for another during a four-game stretch, Matt Costello (mononucleosis) has missed four straight, reserve guard Travis Trice sat out one game with foot blisters and Branden Dawson (shin bruise) didn't dress as a precautionary measure for Saturday's 101-48 win over New Orleans.In addition, leading scorer Adreian Payne (plantar fasciitis) and fellow senior Keith Appling (hip pointer) have been playing through injuries."I don't know if I've had my full team," Izzo said. "I like the direction we're heading, I just need more consistency. When you don't get the practice with everybody for three weeks, I shouldn't be totally surprised at the lack of consistency."Harris seems healthy after scoring 19 points Saturday, and Appling said he's recovered after matching his career high with 27 points and adding eight assists. He went 2 for 11 with four points in a win over Texas in the previous contest Dec. 21."I was able to get a couple of days off over Christmas break and rest up," Appling said. "That helped my body heal. Now, my hip feels 100 percent."Michigan State leads the Big Ten in field-goal percentage at 49.1 and ranks second in the nation in assists with 19.5 per game. It is expected to have Dawson and Costello back Tuesday.Reserve Kenny Kaminski will dress after a three-game, academic-related suspension against Penn State, which has won three of four after rallying to beat Mount St. Mary's 92-82 on Dec. 22.D.J. Newbill, who leads the conference in scoring at 18.9 points per game, scored 18 points, while Tim Frazer added 15. They are averaging a combined 37.1 points for a Nittany Lions squad shooting 47.7 percent to rank just behind the Spartans in the Big Ten.Coach Pat Chambers' team carries a 9-4 record into conference play."It easily could've been 10 (wins), it easily could've been 11, but for whatever reason, it's not," Chambers told the school's official website. "You have to learn from those losses and that should make us more prepared for the Big Ten."Penn State got a lift in its last contest from guard John Johnson, who scored 20 points off the bench in his first game eligible after transferring from Pittsburgh.Southern Methodist transfer Jordan Dickerson had two blocks in eight minutes in his first action."There's going to be nothing that we're not ready for," Chambers said. "Now that we have two new guys, it makes our bench a little deeper."Payne scored 20 points as a reserve after being benched with Dawson for the first half due to disciplinary reasons in the most recent meeting, as Michigan State won 81-72 on the road Jan. 16.Newbill had a career-high 27 points in that contest.