Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
In many ways, keep moving along — there is not a whole lot to see here. February is beginning, the Michigan State Spartans are near the top of the Big Ten, and March expectations are high in East Lansing. Per usual, Tom Izzo’s crew has arrived at its current position with little pomp or flair, again embracing a gritty, determined approach that has come to define the Green and White. Perhaps the familiarity of the exercise is why the Spartans have largely flown under the radar this season, a lack of attention surely aided by playing in a conference loaded with Top 25 teams. Either way, it’s taken more than Tom Izzo and the Michigan State brand to answer all those questions that surrounded Sparty back in November, and if you are looking for reasons why this has become yet another vintage Izzo team, the continued development of a pair of juniors would be a good place to start.
Back in November, if you asked Tom Izzo which of his players needed to be great for his team to meet or exceed expectations, it would have taken him all of 0.2 seconds to tell you that player was Keith Appling. The former McDonald’s All-American had a nice sophomore season a year ago, but with senior leader Draymond Green’s eligibility expiring, the onus fell on the normally reserved Appling to take the reins of this group of Spartans. And while his statistical profile suggests that Appling is producing at a similar rate to a year ago, the junior has done exactly what Izzo needed him to do – take control of this team. Appling did it all the way back in November, when he took over a close game late to help hand Kansas what is still their only loss of the year. He did it again this evening, coming up with all the key plays down the stretch, the most emphatic of which occurred when he split a double-team then delivered a perfect lob to teammate Branden Dawson for a resounding dunk. But more importantly, in between that victory over KU and the defeat of the Illini tonight, there has been little doubt as to who is running this Michigan State team – an important answer to a question that lingered all summer in East Lansing.