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The Starting Five: Five Questions For The Only Colors About UM-MSU

Chris Vannini of The Only Colors gives his insight on the UM-MSU game Saturday.

Joe Robbins

What is Adreian Payne's status for the game Saturday and what changes for the Spartans if he isn't able to play?

Tom Izzo said Payne's chances of playing are "slim to none." Throw in Branden Dawson out 4-5 weeks with a broken hand, and an already-handicapped team is even more so. I don't think Payne will play, but, like, man, gun to my head? I would say he does. At least Payne will try to. Who knows what Izzo will say.

Without those two, MSU loses pretty much all of its viable frontcourt options. Kenny Kaminski has come on of late, but he's a three-point shooting big man who doesn't rebound or play defense much. Costello plays good post defense, but his rebounding has been average, and he's not much of a threat on the offensive end. Alex Gauna can score, but he gets pushed around and beat for rebounds. Gavin Schilling hasn't been playing basketball very long. He's more of a project. If you could combine those four, it'd be a great player.

I'm guessing you'll see a mix of Costello and Gauna at center, with Kaminski at power forward. I also think big guard Denzel Valentine will also play the 4 at times when MSU goes small. He has at least six rebounds in 10 of the last 11 games and has become one of MSU's best defensive rebounders. MSU already wasn't a great offensive rebounding team (unlike most Izzo teams), and losing Dawson takes about MSU's only real option on the offensive glass.

Michigan State may have the best back court in the conference with Keith Appling and Gary Harris. How have these two improved from last year?

I think, for the first time, Appling feels like a true point guard. In 2011-12, the ball would go to Draymond Green often. Last season, the offense went through Derrick Nix a lot. This year, MSU doesn't have a true post-up threat, so the ball goes to Appling when things need to get back on track, and he's in the top 200 nationally in assist rate. But wrist injuries and other ailments have hindered him at times, and he might be coming off his worst game of the year after taking a few tough spills against Indiana.

As for Harris, his shooting hasn't been as good as a year ago, but he's starting to drive to the basket more and become a complete offensive threat. It's probably not a coincidence that he's healing up from an ankle injury suffered in the offseason and reinjured earlier in the year. With MSU's lack of frontcourt options, Appling and Harris will obviously have to be the game's best players if MSU is going to win.

Michigan has shown off its front court depth after the Mitch McGary injury, finding efficient production from the combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. Who else does MSU depend on on its front line and is this an exploitable weakness that Michigan can go after?

I mentioned it a bit above, but this will be a weakness Michigan will want to exploit. That doesn't mean straight posting up, but if Nik Stauskas or a point guard can penetrate, it will open a lot of options. Stauskas looks so good in this role, either going to the hoop, pulling up or dishing to a big man. This will be the biggest key to MSU's defense. In the last two years, MSU has defended U-M's ball screens well, but, if Payne is gone, it leaves big men who don't have much experience with it. MSU's defense struggled with the penetration against Indiana.

Michigan's offense has been incredible over the last few weeks and is one of the best in the Big Ten because of a heavy dose of high ball screens and excellent floor spacing. What do you foresee MSU doing to hamper Michigan's offense, and can the Spartans keep Michigan out of the paint?

I feel like I keep answering these questions in other questions. MSU's remaining big men do not have much experience against Michigan, and it's part of the reason I think MSU may opt to play smaller than normal. Kenny Kaminski may be MSU's most important player on the defensive end. And if he's not playing much, that means he's not playing well. But MSU doesn't have many other options at this point. MSU's defensive communication will be as important as ever, given how shorthanded they are.

What does Michigan State have to do to win against the Wolverines, and how do you expect the game to play out?

In 2011, Michigan won in East Lansing for the first time since 1997. Two days before that game, Korie Lucious was suspended for the season. This year, Dawson gets injured two days before the game. Quite simply, if Payne plays, I think MSU wins. If he doesn't, I think MSU loses.

MSU already has been an average rebounding team, and now it loses its best rebounder in Dawson and perhaps the next best in Payne. And after that, there's not a whole lot. Valentine's rebounding, Kaminski's defense and Appling/Harris on offense will all have to be great for MSU to win shorthanded.

Injuries happen. Hell, Michigan lost an NBA player for the year. But other than that, the Wolverines have generally been healthy, and they've been able to grow as a team without him. It has been a frustrating year for MSU, because they haven't been full strength since very early in the season. They've managed to get through it and start 18-1 because they're still an immensely talented team. But talent alone isn't going to beat Michigan the way they've been playing, especially without Dawson and Payne.

MSU is in first place. By the middle of next week, they could be in third place. College Gameday is in town, and the energy will be palpable. It will be up to the Spartans to use that to their advantage and ride the adrenaline in this monster game.