Michigan State hosts Nebraska at 6 tonight. The Cornhuskers were already out-manned. Now they’re shorthanded, too, minus competent big man Matt Ubel (fractured elbow) and reserve guard Mike Peltz, who had been the eighth man in an eight-man rotation. [Here's the Tipoff, breaking down the game.]
So, why does this evening’s game matter? After all, Nebraska is an 18-point underdog with no shot at winning.
There are several reasons, most having to do with individual personnel.
- First, Gary Harris. Will MSU’s freshman standout play after his left shoulder popped out of place again against Iowa Thursday? And, if he does, can he make it through the game with out it happening again and play well with a shoulder brace he’d prefer not to wear? Harris is essential to the Spartans reaching a ceiling that includes the NCAA tournament’s second or third weekend.
- Branden Dawson. Dawson’s last three halves have been probably his best of the season. And it’s come in two games in which MSU needed that sort of effort. If Dawson performs with a similar motor in a matchup with the Cornhuskers, it’s a significant sign that he’s figured out how he needs to play and he’s becoming a pro. Just like having a healthy Harris, to reach its potential, MSU needs to know it can count on Dawson every night.
- Will someone else’s role show signs of increasing? In other words, will either Alex Gauna or Russell Byrd, in possibly extended minutes, find a rhythm that prompts Izzo to lean on them more? If Harris is out or limited, this’ll be more necessary. Izzo said last week that Gauna’s role is the most likely to change [Here's my column on Gauna from today's LSJ].
In Byrd’s case, he could use a better showing than against Iowa, when he missed a 3-pointer that would’ve brought MSU back to within a point of the Hawkeyes, and then passed up another outside shot which eventually led to a fast break the other way.
The story lines and impact of this game aren’t as interesting or important as next Saturday’s home date with Ohio State. But this game is more than just passing time.