In mid-November at a big-deal college basketball doubleheader in Chicago, Michigan State beat Kentucky.
The nation's preseason No. 2 team edged the preseason No. 1, 78-74. That's your clear-cut favorite for the Big Ten championship, everyone said.
But basketball teams, with player rotations generally of seven to 10 players, can easily come apart. Even one as victory-hardened as Michigan State, not that it has had anything remotely resembling a collapse. One 5-point loss to Michigan does not a cave-in make.
So no one is holding any pity parties for the Spartans, a squad that's 18-2 overall and 7-1 in the Big Ten and ranked sixth in the USA TODAY coaches' poll and seventh by Associated Press.
However, MSU Coach Tom Izzo said Monday that he's never had a season like this when it comes to injuries and illnesses. He is presently without 26.4 points and 16.4 rebounds per game Tuesday with the absences of the injured Adreian Payne and Brendan Dawson.
Dawson is definitely out with a broken bone in a hand. Payne's chances of playing for the first time in the last six games are "slim to none to none," said Izzo. Payne has a foot injury.
On top of that, senior guard Keith Appling is playing with an injured right wrist. Izzo said there was no point in giving Appling a week off to heal because he needs more time than that. So the 15-point-per-game guy keeps playing.
Here's what Appling did against Iowa in last March's Big Ten tournament:
How Dawson got hurt shows how fragile these ecosystems can be. During ESPN's telecast of Michigan State's 71-66 win over Indiana in East Lansing last Tuesday, analyst Dan Dakich said a key to the Spartans' national-title aspirations will be Dawson's intensity. Hearing that during a film session last Thursday, Dawson slammed his right hand on a table, and broke it.
"It wasn't really the announcers, what Dan Dakich said," Dawson explained. "I was just feeling pressure and kind of got frustrated, and just broke down.
"It was kind of crazy."
It was kind of human. A 20-year-old guy is a cog on a team with sky-high expectations. He clearly is a terrific player who wants to be all he can be. He "broke down" for a moment, got frustrated and angry. You'd rather have someone like that than someone who just shrugs things off.
So here comes Michigan State to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Tuesday night to play Iowa, which is 12th or 15th depending on your poll-preference.
Much about this suggests a big night for the Hawkeyes. Being at home with a crowd that will scream itself hoarse, being in good health, being deeper and bigger than the Spartans, being motivated to avenge a particularly galling Big Ten tournament defeat last year, being motivated to show an ESPN Super Tuesday audience who and what they are.
If it were any other Big Ten club coming in with two vital pieces missing and a third not at full capacity, you'd say the Hawkeyes might be able to name the score. This being Michigan State, you say Iowa better really bring it.
Izzo isn't using Lansing YMCA players in Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and a still-potent Appling. The Spartans didn't exactly limp through their 80-75 home loss to Michigan last Saturday. The white-hot Wolverines had a big push in the final three minutes to earn that win over MSU.Any team with Harris and Appling will fight you. The Hawkeyes need to take the fight to Michigan State. It's kind of hard to imagine they won't.