GAME PREVIEW - The Michigan State men's basketball team will go into Purdue on Saturday with some unanswered questions. But not the ones you might think.
If it were just tactical or strategy adjustments, the odds are Tom Izzo and his staff could get those solved before the No. 12/8 Spartans (19-4, 8-2 Big Ten) take on Purdue (12-11, 5-5) at 7 p.m. (BTN) in West Lafayette, Ind.
But these are health questions that can't be fully answered until play resumes Saturday night and most, if not all those injured are in the heat of battle.
What makes it even more troubling is that all of the recent injuries to MSU players have occurred in the backcourt, which could hamper the Spartans' depth at the position, not only against the Boilermakers but for their upcoming showdown with Big Ten leader Michigan on Tuesday.
With Keith Appling (shoulder), Gary Harris (back) and Travis Trice (head) all being recent casualties, the Spartans may need some more help from bench players like freshman guard Denzel Valentine and redshirt sophomore Russell Byrd.
Valentine showed well in his upgraded role against Minnesota on Wednesday, finishing with eight points and just one turnover in 21 minutes of play.
While Appling and Harris are expected to play, Trice is expected to remain on the bench for another game in hopes if getting back for Tuesday's game against U-M.
"Keith is pretty good, his arm's a little sore, he iced all night'' said Izzo, who also witnessed a a tweaked ankle for Branden Dawson and a severely bloody nose for Adreian Payne in MSU's win over Minnesota on Wednesday. "His wasn't nearly as bad as Gary's was and thank God everything went back so quick so it didn't stretch anything. Appling will play but I'm a little concerned because it's going to be a little weaker and Gary's my main concern still because when he gets bumped it just gets twerked and when it does that the muscles start spasaming. Travis I wouldn't even say is questionable (and won't play).''
In their first meeting of the season, back on Jan. 5th, MSU - then ranked No. 18 - dispatched Matt Painter's always physical team, 84-61.
Since then, the Boilermakers, who were led by 7-foot freshman center A.J. Hammons' 20 points back in January, have gone 5-4, while MSU has posted a 7-1 mark to move into contention for the regular season conference crown.
MSU enters Saturday's play tied with Indiana and Michigan for the top spot and will be facing a Boilermaker team that is 9-4 at Mackey Arena this season.
In addition to facing a hostile crowd, MSU will have to deal with a continually improving young team that is coming off a hard-earned 58-49 win at Penn State on Tuesday.
In that game, Hammons and redshirt freshman Donnie Hale posted double-doubles, while freshman guard Ronnie Johnson led the team with 16 points.
Entering Saturday night's contest, junior guard Terone Johnson is the leading scorer at 12.4 points a game for a Purdue team that is 36-16 in February during Painter's tenure and leads the Big Ten, in conference play, in rebounding with an average of 39.2 per game. The Boilermakers also average a second-best 13.8 offensive boards per game in league play.
Hammons is the team's second-leading point producer and top rebounder at 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.
Oddly enough, while the Boilermakers have proven to be such a good rebounding team, Painter is worried about how well his team will handle the inside play of MSU's posts, senior Derrick Nix and junior Adreian Payne.
''Michigan State can go really big,'' Painter said. ''We're trying to get consistency with our bigs, especially holding down Nix and Payne Saturday, who are both really good players''
Purdue will represent the third-straight team that MSU has faced that starts a three-guard set.
Joining Terone Johnson out on the perimeter are his brother, freshman Ronnie Johnson, who adds 9.6 points and a team-leading 3.5 assists a contest, and 6-5 freshman Rapheal Davis, who contributes 5.3 points and 3.4 rebounds a game but has averaged 6.4 points and 4.8 rebounds since being added to the starting lineup eight games ago.
"Every game is a big game and we know Purdue plays awfully well at home. They're a tough team, they've got penetrators, their post guy's really starting to play really well and they've got guards that can get into the paint,'' Izzo said. "They can be 20-0 or 0-20 and it's going to be a dogfight down there and everybody knows that that plays them but at the same time, it's a big game for us.''
Purdue leads the all-time series 65-48 margin even though MSU has won the last four meetings. Painter is 6-9 against the Spartans, who are 3-2 on the road in the Big Ten this season.
MSU, which got a 22-point performance out of Harris, an Indiana native, as they ran away from Purdue in the second half of the two team's first meeting, have beaten the Boilermakers in 20 of the last 30 meetings. But MSU has only won 16 times in 56 trips to Purdue.
And Izzo is 20-13 in his career against the Boilermakers.
Appling leads MSU's attack into West Lafayette at 14 points and 4.2 assists a game, while Harris adds 12.9 points, and sophomore wing Branden Dawson, another Indiana native, contributes 10.5 points a game to a Spartan starting five where every player averages 8.8 points or better a game.
Three of the Spartans starters average 6.4 rebounds or better for a team that has won all eight of its conference games in which it has committed 14 or less turnovers.
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