Tom Izzo doesn't know what to expect Thursday night when Adreian Payne returns to the court for Michigan State.
The coach is confident that any sight of Payne limping around isn't a cause for concern.
Payne will be back from a seven-game absence due to a sprained foot when the No. 9 Spartans host a Penn State team that has won three straight.
Michigan State (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten) went 5-2 without Payne, who Izzo said went through about one-third of Monday's practice. Izzo has no idea how many minutes he will give to Payne, who averages 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds.
"How much he'll play on Thursday I wish I knew," Izzo said. "Maybe by Thursday morning I'll know more because it is going to be day to day but at least there seems to be some significant progress without any real soreness."
Payne's condition must be improving based on how Izzo answered a question about whether the senior forward was seen limping around campus.
"The guy hasn't played in a long time, he hasn't had a date in a month," Izzo said. "So you know, guys I think put on the injuries so that some girl will walk him to class or something because I did not see him limping at all."
The Spartans are in a tight race with No. 10 Michigan for the top spot in the Big Ten as they return to conference play after Saturday's 64-60 loss in New York to a Georgetown team that entered on a five-game slide.
"One of the reasons we went there is to try to get on a big stage and see how we handled it," Izzo said. "I told my team we flunked the test. We did not handle it very well."
Michigan State opened the Big Ten season by rallying from seven down at halftime for a 79-63 victory at Penn State on Dec. 31. Branden Dawson led the Spartans with 20 points, but he's out with a broken hand.
The Nittany Lions (12-10, 3-6) are a much better team now as they enjoy their longest Big Ten win streak since a four-game run Jan. 17-Feb. 1, 2009. The Feb. 1 date that year marks their only win in 20 tries in the series in East Lansing, coming against a Spartans team ranked ninth.
An 0-6 Big Ten start is a distant memory for Penn State.
"We're a different team than we were in the non-conference, we're a different team than we were in the first six games," coach Patrick Chambers said.
This matchup features two of the conference's top scorers. Gary Harris averages 18.4 points for the Spartans and D.J. Newbill scores 17.6 per game for the Nittany Lions.
Newbill's average is up to 19.7 points over the last six games, and he had 19 in Sunday's 79-68 win over Purdue. He outscored Harris 17-13 in the first meeting.
Payne had a game-high 10 rebounds as Michigan State held a 45-26 edge on the glass.
The Spartans made 10 of 20 3-pointers in that one. That's a favorable matchup since Michigan State shoots 37.9 percent from long range while Penn State is last in the conference allowing opponents to shoot 35.2 percent on 3s.
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