The smile on Russell Byrd‘s face as he skipped back down the court was ear-to-ear.
The Michigan State redshirt junior had just hit the biggest shot of his life, a three-pointer that put the Spartans up six in overtime in a critical conference matchup with Iowa Tuesday. Michigan State would go on to win 71-69, but Byrd’s smile was indicative of a bigger victory for the Spartans.
The Spartans are without a pair of frontcourt starters in Branden Dawson (broken hand) and Adreian Payne (sprained foot). And right now, that’s not a bad thing. It frees up minutes for players like Byrd and Matt Costello, offering valuable experience in important situations like the ones Tuesday night in Iowa City.
Byrd’s history is no secret. A freshman injury damaged his confidence as a shooter. He’s passed up shots with the whole Breslin Center seemingly begging him to put the ball up. That smile may be hint that his confidence has returned, and no team ever has enough shooters.
Byrd may not have even been on the floor if not for the frontcourt health issues.
Costello is a more direct recipient of the extra playing time going around in Payne’s and Dawson’s absence. The 6-foot-9 sophomore tallied a double-double against Iowa with 11 points and 12 rebounds. He had nine points and eight boards in an 80-75 loss to Michigan Saturday. In short, Costello is coming into his own.
The injuries are providing a chance for Michigan State to develop the kind of depth it will need to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
But the Spartans are learning other things as well. And it’s extra nice when “you can learn lessons with wins,” as coach Tom Izzo told the Big Ten Network’s Lisa Byington Tuesday night.
Gary Harris is one of the best, if not the best, player in the Big Ten. But he’s looked tentative in big situations late in games at times. Payne and Dawson were part of a big safety net for Harris to fall into. That net is a little smaller without them, and Harris is learning to become the type of go-to player who can make the big bucket at the critical time.
Michigan State’s time without its frontcourt will only benefit it in the long run. The Spartans may take some lumps, maybe even a couple of losses, but come March, Izzo’s bunch will be in better shape to get the coach to his seventh Final Four in 16 years.