Nearly two weeks ago, Tom Izzo tried to shake things up, but fate wouldn’t let him.
The Spartans’ head coach’s experiment with a new starting five lasted less than a minute, when Gary Harris fell to the floor with a sprained shoulder that would sideline the freshman guard for about a week.
Harris and sophomore guard Travis Trice returned from injury in a loss to Miami (Fla.) this past Wednesday, and with renewed depth in the backcourt, Izzo was able to go back to the new starting lineup he’d been hoping to try a few weeks prior.
The new lineup, which features a smaller, quicker playing group with sophomore guard Branden Dawson playing the power forward and junior center Adreian Payne coming off the bench, proved successful in a dominant 84-39 victory over Nicholls State on Saturday, although Izzo admitted it’s a small sample size.
“It wasn’t a fair evaluation,” Izzo said. “I mean, I liked what I saw, but I’m not going to fool myself that it was a fair evaluation of what we need. I’m going to need a couple more games to look at it.
“I did like the way Adreian (Payne) came off the bench though and had some energy. He did some good things. He was kind of active in there for the minutes he played.”
Payne, who has battled a cold for about a week, still managed to secure his second career double-double, with 10 points and a career-high-tying 12 rebounds in the victory.
Although he has said he wanted to start, Payne said he’s excited to come off the bench, and believes there are numerous attributes he can bring in his new role.
“I can get to see how we’re playing, see how the (referees) are calling the game, and I think it’s helping me stay out of foul trouble,” Payne said.
“If we start out with energy and we get some energy coming off the bench, then we’re going to be an even better team because it’s not like we’ll ever be lacking energy.”
The bench is where many of the questions remain, as Izzo looks for a dependable playing group among sophomore guard Russell Byrd, sophomore forward Alex Gauna, sophomore guard Brandan Kearney and freshman forward Matt Costello.
“It’s the Gaunas and the Kearneys and the right now Costellos and the Byrds that somebody’s got to work their way in and somebody might work their way out,” Izzo said.
“I think each one of them brings something we need. One’s a shooter, one’s a defender, one’s a rugged insider and one’s a pick-and-pop guy. So we’ve got a little bit of everything there.”
Still, Izzo said he doesn’t expect many of these battles to end soon, but rather be a part of the constant evolution that comes during a season.
“I don’t think it ever ends because guys go through slumps, guys go through tough times. Some guys that are playing good will fall on hard times, but there definitely has to be a seven-, eight-man rotation and a couple guys that can float in and out of it, and I don’t know where that is totally yet,” he said.
“I think our starting group, I think we’ve got six guys in there for sure, I think, with Trice, we’ve got a seventh guy in there that will play better and better. … We’ve got to find a way to gradually mold them together.”