Is Keith Appling Back, and With Him, Michigan State?Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 8th, 2014
When Keith Appling nailed his first three-pointer against Iowa on Thursday night, a sense of reserved joy and nervous hope emanated from the Breslin Center crowd. After all, the beleaguered Spartan point guard hadn’t hit one since suffering a wrist injury in February that sidelined him for three games, not to mention stunted his offensive production — no one knew if this was a blind squirrel finding a nut, or a sign of positive things to come. But when Appling sunk his second triple, capping off a 12-point scoring explosion that marked his best output since January? The arena sounded much more confident this time around, booming with an optimism that not even a senior night victory could manufacture alone. Instead, the cathartic roar acknowledged a greater possibility: If Appling is once again a viable a weapon on the offensive end, Michigan State is once again a Final Four threat.
Entering Thursday, Michigan State had lost three of its previous four games and Appling looked completely inept when it came to putting the ball in the basket. He scored two points in the home loss to Nebraska, one point against Purdue, and combined for 11 in back-to-back defeats to Michigan and Illinois. But while the 6’1’’ senior’s inability to score was troubling enough, his inability to even threaten to score was a much larger problem. Pre-injury Appling was a skilled shooter and an aggressive attacker, both skills that (in addition to his role as facilitator) took pressure off of and opened up shots for shooting guard Gary Harris, the Spartans’ most dynamic offensive player. Whether it was a waning shot clock or a team-wide offensive funk, the ability for Harris or Appling to penetrate-and-kick, finish at the rim, or get to the free throw line, enabled Michigan State to generate points in difficult circumstances. When the point guard hurt his wrist, sapping him of confidence and causing him to continuously defer, much of the burden was placed on Harris’ shoulders — and defenses knew it. Down the stretch against Illinois, for example, the team looked lost as the sophomore tried, time after time, to create his own shot to little avail. “For a long time, Gary had to do everything,” Tom Izzo mentioned after Thursday’s game.
And that’s why Appling’s second half performance in the 86-76 victory over Iowa Thursday night was so important. Instead of being at-best a non-factor and at-worst a hindrance, he was the other multifaceted guard the team so desperately needed. Not only did he finally start hitting shots, but he looked assertive doing it. One of his threes was taken early in the shot clock – demonstrating his willingness to hoist when open – and he attacked the lane on several different occasions. It was a sharp, momentous turn after what began as another subpar night for the senior. Izzo, along with everyone else, could sense the importance: “Keith Appling the first half to the second half was Keith Appling the last six weeks to… the first six weeks,” the coach said afterwards.
So what does this mean for the Spartans going forward? Well, it could mean they make an upcoming run in Big Ten Tournament – a possibility that seemed highly questionable this time last week. Not only was Appling’s offensive output encouraging on Thursday, but Branden Dawson – who returned against Illinois after missing nine games – was extremely active on defense (five steals, three blocks) and at times explosive on the other end. If both players are fully back in the fold, Michigan State is capable of winning three games in Indianapolis and boosting its eventual NCAA Tournament seed up a line or two. But that remains a big ‘if’, and one half of basketball should never prompt sweeping judgments. Appling, Dawson and the rest of the team – seemingly full-strength for the first time in months – will face one of the nation’s toughest defenses on Sunday at Ohio State, and not sinking back into old habits (like an over-reliance on Harris) will be imperative. If Appling can inch another step closer to becoming the consistent scorer he was in the first half of the season, the Michigan State-to-North Texas prognostications will only get louder. If he regresses, Thursday night’s optimism could prove premature.