Michigan State needs Keith Appling -- soon
For a stretch, Michigan State's Keith Appling was considered one of the top point guards in the country. Appling is still guarding, but he's not making shots -- and hasn't even been the one with the ball in his hands in crunch time lately. Sparty needs him to get on track soon, or they won't be going anywhere in March and April.
Tom Izzo is about as forthright as any coach in America when it comes to discussing his team. In fact, Michigan State's head coach is almost too honest at times.
So when I asked him, following the team's loss to rival Michigan, whether he was worried about Keith Appling's psyche, I expected to hear Izzo go into great detail about his concerns regarding his point guard.
Instead, Izzo said he wasn't worried.
"I'm really not," he said.
This may be the one time I'm not quite sure I believe Izzo.
Appling played fairly well in Ann Arbor, if you omit the play -- the most important in the entire game -- in which Trey Burke swiped the ball from him and proceeded to go in for an uncontested dunk -- or yet another subpar shooting performance. Appling guarded and made decent decisions with the ball. However, he hasn't made shots in the team's three-game slide. He's made just five from the field and missed 18 over that stretch -- and also has more turnovers than assists.
At the beginning of the season Appling was clearly the Spartans' go-to guy. There was no debate whose hands the ball would be in with the game on the line. Give it to Appling and let him make a play, either for himself or someone else. Now it's a crapshoot -- and that's both a positive and a negative for Izzo.
Adreian Payne and Gary Harris have both stepped up of late. The light seems to have finally gone on for Payne, who is an exceptional talent, and Harris has benefited lately from health and experience. Derrick Nix has also improved dramatically and become a legitimate low-post threat. However, none of them is capable of making a play out of virtually nothing quite like Appling. Izzo said the play was drawn up for Appling last night on the final possession, but Harris was the one who found himself with the ball in his hands as the clock ran out on a one-point loss.
"That's not what we drew up," Izzo said after watching Harris turn the ball over and the Spartans fail to get a final look.
Michigan State won't get a No. 1 seed or win the Big Ten regular-season title, but the Spartans can be a factor both in the Big Ten tourney -- and more importantly in the NCAA tournament. Izzo has a couple of quality big men, a talented, emerging scorer in Harris and a tough wing in Branden Dawson. Plus, there aren't many coaches you'd rather have patrolling the sidelines come March than Izzo.
But without Appling, this team isn't going anywhere.
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