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No. 1 Michigan State’s loss to North Carolina: Injuries, or sign of a bigger issue?

Dec 5, 2013, 12:21 AM EDT

Tom Izzo, Quinton Sawyer, Keith Appling

No. 1 Michigan State’s inconsistency final came back to bite them.

The Spartans shot 35.9% from the field and 7-for-24 from three as they got dropped by North Carolina, 79-65, at the Breslin Center on Wednesday night. Michigan State had erased an 18-4 deficit, tying things up at the half, but the Tar Heels used a 16-3 run to take a 65-52 lead on yet another Kennedy Meeks bucket in front of the rim.

Meeks finished with 15 points and seven boards. Brice Johnson added 14 points and six boards. Throw in J.P. Tokoto’s 12 points and 10 boards — five of which were on the offensive end — and you get a pretty good sense of how North Carolina knocked off the Spartans. They beat them up inside, they got to every loose ball and, frankly, they showed up ready to play. Think about it like this: Michigan State just got worked over in the Breslin Center by the schizophrenic Tar Heels on a night where James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige combined to shoot 7-for-25 from the floor.

Crazy, right?

North Carolina was terrific. They jumped all over the Spartans from the tip. They deserved to win this game.

But there is no way that you can sit here and tell me that the Spartans were anywhere near 100% for this one. Gary Harris was clearly struggling with the ankle that held him out of the lineup against Mount St. Mary’s, and he rolled it again in the first half. Keith Appling took a nasty spill in the first half as well, landing on his hip and getting forced back to the locker room for a couple of minutes. Adreian Payne was battling cramps in his legs that clearly impeded his ability to get up and down the floor.

Those are Michigan State’s three best players.

The Spartans don’t have a chance if those three are all as limited as they were Wednesday night.

Now, here’s the clarification: those injuries didn’t have anything to do with Michigan State’s horrendous start to the night. They weren’t the reason that everyone on State’s roster — with the exception of Matt Costello — seemed listless. They might explain why the big three were settling for threes instead of getting to the rim, but it’s not an excuse for allowing North Carolina to dominate them on the offensive glass. It’s not the reason that help-side defense was too slow to rotate or that Meeks and Johnson were routinely able to establish position in the post.

The Spartans entered this game undefeated, but they haven’t exactly been the most consistently dominant team in the country. They barely beat Columbia. They struggled against Portland and nearly blew a massive lead against Oklahoma.

Michigan State needs to get healthy.

But is there more going on here than just the injury bug biting them at the wrong time?

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