Which Big Ten Program Needs The Final Four More This Season?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 27th, 2014

We know about the statistic that no Michigan State senior has left East Lansing without making it to the Final Four under Tom Izzo, which makes this weekend extremely crucial for Keith Appling and Adreian Payne. We also know that Bo Ryan hasn’t made an Elite Eight since 2005 and hasn’t had great success in the postseason, so this high-powered Wisconsin offense has a decent chance to make it to the Final Four. Nobody expected Michigan to be here after Mitch McGary’s injury, but we have learned not to doubt the Wolverines’ explosive offense because they could beat anybody on a given night. As we head into the next round of games, let’s try to understand which coach and program really needs the Final Four. Note that this is not a discussion about which coach would be on the “hot seat” if they don’t make the Final Four because Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and John Beilein’s seat is as cold as it can get based on the credibility they have earned with their respective programs.

Tom Izzo's roster doesn't look great next year and the opportunity to make the Final Four may not come around for a couple more years.

Tom Izzo’s roster doesn’t look great next year and the opportunity to make the Final Four may not come around for a couple more years. (AP)

  • Michigan State: On the outset, an appearance in the Sweet 16 seems to be perfectly enough for Izzo because his program continues to uphold its reputation of being excellent in the postseason. But digging deeper and understanding his roster’s composition over the next two seasons emphasizes the importance of this weekend. Under the assumption that Gary Harris is headed to the NBA draft and considering that two key seniors graduate next year, the Spartans don’t really have a go-to scorer left on the roster. Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice are capable of possibly averaging 12 points per game next season but neither of them have proved that they can take over a game when needed. The freshman class isn’t great either because it doesn’t even rank in the top 30 according to Rivals. Izzo will still find a way to compete for the Big Ten title but he may not have enough horsepower to compete for a Final Four — at least not for another two seasons. This weekend is their chance to make an impact and get ahead before they take a step back at least for another year as they rebuild. Read the rest of this entry »
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How The Remaining Big Ten Teams Can Make the Elite Eight

Posted by Brendan Brody (@berndon4) on March 27th, 2014

Three Big Ten teams have been eliminated and three are still standing after one of the most memorable second and third rounds in NCAA Tournament history. It’s obvious that the three teams that are still around took my expert advice, so here’s some more for Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo and John Beilein completely free of charge. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State can all very well reach the Elite Eight but they are facing really good teams that are playing some of their basketball of the season. Here’s how they can get the best of each of those teams and continue to move forward in the bracket.

Jordan Morgan will have his hands full trying to keep Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon off the boards in Michigan's Sweet 16 contest against Tennessee. (Getty)

Jordan Morgan (right) will have his hands full trying to keep Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon off the boards in Michigan’s Sweet 16 contest against Tennessee. (Getty)

  • Michigan needs to spread the floor and crash the boards to beat Tennessee: Michigan does a good job with this but they need to make either Jeronne Maymon or Jarnell Stokes guard someone on the perimeter. Tennessee has a clear-cut size advantage, but Michigan presents  its own set of unique match-up problems with their skill on the wings. Glenn Robinson III has to have a big game for the Wolverines to advance, as he will have to mix it up down low at times. But he also can utilize his quickness and mid-range game to take one of Tennessee’s big men off the bounce and pull one of the two out of the paint. Robinson and Caris LeVert have to make rebounding a priority against the fourth-best offensive rebouding and 18th-best defensive rebounding team in the country. If they can combine for 12-15 rebounds between the two of them, and Jordan Morgan continues his outstanding play down low, Michigan has a great chance to beat a team quite similar to the Texas team it just defeated. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: #4 Michigan State 80, #12 Harvard 73

Posted by Kenny Ocker on March 22nd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregionKenny Ocker is an RTC columnist and correspondent. He is covering the Spokane pods of the East and West regionals this week.

Three Key Takeaways.

Harvard's Run Came to an End Tonight (Boston.com)

Harvard’s Run Came to an End Tonight (Boston.com)

  1. Any Michigan State starter *can* dominate — it just doesn’t mean they will. On Thursday night, Adreian Payne hung up 41 points. Tonight, Branden Dawson had 20 points and six rebounds in the first half. Dawson only had six in the second half, though, when his team’s offense started to completely fall apart. A consistent 40-minute performance was missing in this round of 32 game from everybody in green and white. Will that catch up with the Spartans as the competition toughens?
  2. The Spartans let a talented team back into the game. Giving up a 17-2 run to a lower seed never, ever bodes well for what’s to come, especially when that run lets said team come back and take the lead for the first time. It took a pair of quick whistles in the final minute for Michigan State to finally get the game in the bag here tonight. What was a good defensive performance was undone by lethargy. If I’m the next team that draws the Spartans, I’m not as concerned as I would have been before this weekend. As talented as they are, this team is still rather inconsistent.
  3. Harvard will likely never have a collection of this much talent again. Losing Laurent Rivard, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry would be tough for any program to handle, much less one from the Ivy League. And that doesn’t include the possibility of forward Wesley Saunders leaving early for the NBA or coach Tommy Amaker taking a big-time college job again (especially the one that’s open just across town at Boston College). Crimson fans should enjoy the pair of NCAA Tournament wins they picked up in the past two years, because you never know when a run like this is bound to come to an end.

Star of the Game: Michigan State’s Gary Harris – 18 points, five assists and one clutch three-pointer when Harvard seemed to have clawed its way back into the game.

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Michigan State Appears Back on Track: Delaware Its Latest Test

Posted by Jonathan Batuello on March 20th, 2014

If you had said you were tired of hearing one phrase in the Big Ten this season, it likely would have revolved around Michigan State. It was repeated nearly every game: “When Michigan State is healthy, the Spartans are one of the best teams in the country.” Well, after an injury-plagued regular season, we finally got the chance to see what the Spartans can do at full strength in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. Two wins later over teams that came into Indianapolis in the conversations as potential No. 1 seeds, America was fully back on board with the Spartans. As of this writing, Michigan State is considered the favorite to make it to the Final Four out of the East region and one of a handful of teams considered likeliest to win it all. Even President Obama is picking the Spartans. The question, of course, is whether the Big Ten Tournament revealed the true answer to that original statement, and whether Sparty’s opening round game against Delaware today is just the first step on its way to Arlington.

The Spartans may finally be healthy but Michigan State needs Keith Appling to play back to his pre-injury level for a deep March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

The Spartans may finally be healthy but Michigan State needs Keith Appling to play back to his pre-injury level for a deep March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

Perhaps the best sign that Michigan State is back to an elite level is that it seemed to get better as the Big Ten Tournament went along. Over the Spartans’ three games, it appeared that they were slowly but surely getting back on track. In its first game against Northwestern, it methodically took care of business against an outmatched Wildcats team. In the semifinal against Wisconsin, Michigan State showed its offensive flair by shooting 53.8 percent from three and 56.9 percent overall. Most notably was its performance in the championship game against Michigan, as Sparty held the one of the nation’s best offenses to 31 percent shooting and 26 percent from three-point range. This is a sea change for a team that had been struggling defensively prior to the return of Dawson.

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The Blueprints: How Each Big Ten Team Can Advance Past Its First Opponent

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 19th, 2014

The Big Ten is largely known as one of the best, if not the best, basketball conferences in all of the land. This hasn’t necessarily equated to great success in the postseason, however. In fact, it’s been 14 long years since one of the league members has cut down the nets on the first Monday night in April (Michigan State – 2000). The first key to winning it all, obviously, is to win your first game. As we head into the league’s six openers over the next two days, here is what each Big Ten team needs to accomplish in order to get into the next round.

Aaron Craft must create turnovers for Ohio State to beat Dayton. (Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire)

Aaron Craft must create turnovers for Ohio State to beat Dayton. (Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire)

  • Ohio State must create turnovers to beat Dayton: This holds true for almost every game that the Buckeyes play, but it’s especially important here because Dayton plays a slower pace and they turn the ball over 18.1% of the time. Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and the rest of the rangy, athletic Buckeyes need to realize that their best offense here is their defense. If they get some live-ball turnovers that will allow them to get out and run, they’ll have Dayton right where they want them.
  • Michigan State must stop the triple threat to beat Delaware: Delaware has three legitimate offensive weapons in Jarvis Threatt, Devon Saddler, and Davon Usher. All three average at least 18.0 PPG for a team that plays at the 10th fastest tempo in the country. Michigan State has their own big three, however, in Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling. If the Spartans’ trio can outscore the group of Blue Hens, with Branden Dawson locking down the 6’6″ Usher in the process, Sparty should move on. Read the rest of this entry »
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Bracket Prep: Florida, Virginia, Michigan State

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 17th, 2014

Championship Week has found its close, but here are a few final short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket this week. None of these titans really needed the “automatic bid” portion of their Tournament title gift package, of course, but with each figuring to play a key role in the weeks ahead, here’s what you need to know about a trio of Championship Week’s final victors.

Florida

Billy Donovan And The Gators Are SEC Champions Twice Over, But Florida Has Their Sights Set On A Greater Prize

Billy Donovan And The Gators Are SEC Champions Twice Over, But Florida Has Their Sights Set On A Greater Prize

  • SEC Champion (32-2, 21-0)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #2/#3/#3
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +16.1
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #1

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. In the final minutes of basketball before the 2014 NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled, Florida survived Kentucky to claim the SEC crown, complete their 21-game conference sweep, and keep alive a 26-game win streak. Quite a tidy going away package for the Gators, who will enter the Tournament as a #1 seed and among the two or three favorites to cut down the nets in Dallas. The one-point victory Sunday was only the fifth time this season that the Gators have won by three points or less – a testament to the workmanlike attitude that has extended this win streak time and time again.
  2. The Gators led the SEC in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Defensive weaknesses are hard to spot with the Gators, but despite the high overall level of offensive efficiency, there is a weak spot or two that opponents will seek to exploit. Florida’s free throw shooting is shaky (66.2% as a team, 295th nationally), and even primary ballhandlers Scotty Wilbekin (72%), Casey Prather (68%) and Kasey Hill (63%) are anything but sure things at the charity stripe. Three-point shooting isn’t a concern for Florida at first glance – they shoot 37% as a team, 73rd best in the country – but Wilbekin (58 3PM, 40%) and Michael Frazier (107 3PM, 46%) have combined to make over 70% of the team’s three-point field goals. The rest of the team shot just 27% from distance, so if an opponent can find a way to take away looks from either Wilbekin or Frazier – especially the latter, who is strictly a perimeter shooter – things could get pretty one-dimensional for the Gator offense.
  3. Florida is the perfect example of a team that used the entire season to grow into an elite squad. For much of November and December, Billy Donovan was just trying to keep proverbial head above water with his team, as pieces shifted in and out of the Gator lineup. Wilbekin, Prather, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Chris Walker all missed time for various reasons, but save for road losses at Wisconsin and Connecticut (and no shame in those, either), the Gators kept on winning. Prather grew into an unlikely All-American candidate, Wilbekin has staked his claim as the best point guard in America, and Frazier is now second to none when it comes to perimeter shooters. None of these things happen without one of the best coaches in the game pressing all the right buttons from the sideline, but Donovan has spent the last four months constructing a team poised for even greater things in the NCAA Tournament. And after winning 26 games in a row en route to a sweep of the SEC titles, that, my friends, is saying something.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Teams

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 16th, 2014

Six Big Ten teams got into the NCAA Tournament; that’s not too bad. Compared to last year’s seven bids, the conference’s representation seems just OK this year. Over the next two days, debates will rage about which teams were penalized too harshly and which teams were slotted in favorable draws by the NCAA selection committee. Here are a few initial thoughts about the six Big Ten teams in this year’s NCAA field.

Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are finally healthy to lead the Spartans back to the Final Four.

Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are finally healthy to lead the Spartans back to the Final Four.

  • Tom Izzo is smiling again after winning the conference tournament. Three up and three down: the Spartans won the Big Ten Tournament convincingly to prove that when they are healthy, they are one of the best teams in the country. Their potential match-up against Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen should be an excellent game, but more importantly, a game that they can win. There is no team in their region — Iowa State and Villanova included — that has more talent than the Spartans.
  • It isn’t surprising to see Minnesota left out of the final 68. There was nothing special about the Gophers’ resume this year outside of their win over Iowa. They won the games that they were supposed t0, but never really impressed the committee with any big wins. Plus, their thumping loss (83-57) to the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament certainly didn’t help their case. Regardless of the final outcome, Richard Pitino did a fine job leading the Gophers to 20 wins in his first campaign, especially considering that Andre Hollins was dealing with injuries for most of the conference season.

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Rushed Reactions: #22 Michigan State 69, #8 Michigan 55

Posted by Walker Carey on March 16th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament title game between Michigan and Michigan State in Indianapolis.

Three Key Takeaways.

MSU is Playing Like the Spartans We All Expected

MSU is Playing Like the Spartans We All Expected

  1. “THIS” version of Michigan State is very dangerous. Tom Izzo‘s squad was very popular Final Four pick in the preseason. As the season progressed, the Spartans lost their popularity due to a variety of injuries. Floor leader Keith Appling missed time. Standout scorer Gary Harris missed time. Versatile forward Branden Dawson missed time. Stretch big man Adreian Payne missed time. The question changed from, “Will Michigan State get to the Final Four?” to, “Will Michigan State ever get healthy?” The Spartans finally played with a full roster for the final three games of the regular season, but they only went 1-2 in those games. This prompted national pundits to question if the team will be able to shake off the rust in time to make a serious run in the postseason. Michigan State just may have answered that question this week, as it ripped off three relatively easy victories en route to the Big Ten Tournament title. As the NCAA Tournament is set to begin later this week, Michigan State finally appears to be the team that many thought it would be.
  2. Michigan’s offense was out of sorts all afternoon. The biggest factor in Michigan winning the regular season conference title by three game was its marvelous offensive attack. Sophomore guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert bursted onto the scene as two of the elite shot makers in the conference, sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III used his versatility and great athleticism to be a legitimate threat from both the inside and outside, and freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. showcased a natural ability to distribute the basketball. All four were thrown off their games Sunday afternoon, as Michigan State’s defense was tenacious from start to finish. The Wolverines finished with their second-lowest scoring output of the season and that can be majorly attributed to its shooting struggles all afternoon. Michigan finished shooting just 31.5% from the field and it could never get anything going from behind the three-point line, finishing at just 26.1% from distance. Every team goes through poor shooting games, but for a team that relies so much on its outside shooting, Michigan is going to need to make better adjustments when up against a tenacious defense if it wants to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.
  3. These are two teams to keep an eye on in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State is as talented as any team that will be in the Field of 68. Now that they are at full health, the Spartans will be a popular pick to advance deep into the bracket. While it did not play well Sunday afternoon, Michigan is still an extremely good team that won the regular season Big Ten title for a reason. This year’s NCAA Tournament seems like it is wide open and the two teams that played Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis each have a chance to – at the very least – make a run to the Final Four.

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The RTC All-Big Ten Team: Michigan State’s Gary Harris

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 12th, 2014

Next up on the countdown of the RTC All-Big Ten team is a sophomore with a silky smooth shot from beyond the arc: Michigan State’s Gary Harris. One of the questions surrounding the Spartans at the beginning of the season was whether they could manufacture enough offense when needed and Harris’s performance this season has affirmatively addressed that dilemma. As a freshman, he was a one-dimensional player who could nail the long-range shot effectively (41% 3FG), but as a sophomore, he has blossomed into an effective scorer that is just as dangerous off the dribble.

Gary Harris (right) is the second best player in the Big Ten.

Gary Harris (right) is the second best player in the Big Ten. (Getty)

Why Gary Harris is the second best player in the league: The simple answer to that question is that Harris is the best player on the second-best team in the Big Ten. Statistics such as 55.4% TS and 31.8% FT Rate show his prowess on the offensive end, but there is no metric that measures his durability on a team that has nursed injuries since January. Over the past two months, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson have all missed significant time, but Harris’ consistency kept the Spartans in contention for the Big Ten title. One or two off nights from the sophomore guard could have resulted in another loss or two, which would have dropped the Spartans down to the #5-#6 seed range for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Taking almost 30 percent of the team’s total shot attempts and still managing a reasonable true shooting percentage shows his discipline as a scorer. In addition to his offensive contributions, Harris has established himself as the clear-cut go-to guy on Tom Izzo’s team — this distinction will provide clarity for a team that is still struggling to regain team chemistry because of a lack of continuity from the starting rotation.

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Key Questions For Michigan State at Ohio State Today

Posted by Alex Moscoso & Brendan Brody on March 9th, 2014

It’s the final weekend of the regular season and teams are either jockeying for seeding or trying to get on the right side of the bubble. Later this afternoon, Michigan State will travel to Ohio State and, with both teams clearly in the NCAA Tournament field already, this game will be about building momentum for the Big Ten Tournament and beyond. Once again, RTC Big Ten writers Alex Moscoso and Brendan Brody preview the game as they each ask one another a question about the today’s match-up.

Keith Appling and the Spartans' offense try to keep the momentum going against Ohio State on Sunday. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

Keith Appling and the Spartans’ offense try to keep the momentum going against Ohio State on Sunday. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

AM: In its last two games, Ohio State’s defense (#2 in KenPom) has underperformed against two inferior teams (Indiana and Penn State). Meanwhile, Michigan State’s offense (#18 in KenPom) has been inconsistent since the beginning of February. In the match-up between the Buckeyes’ defense vs the Spartans’ offense today, which comes out on top, and why?

BB: It’s hard to say whether Michigan State’s performance Thursday night against Iowa was simply the result of Iowa’s porous defense or a sign that the Spartans are once again fully healthy and clicking on all cylinders. Numbers like 1.26 points per possession, 58.3 percent shooting from the field, and 20 assists on 28 made fields goals, aren’t anything to take lightly, whether they were accomplished against the league’s third-worst defense in conference play or otherwise. Part of the problem for Ohio State in its two losses is that the Buckeyes let their opponents shoot 38.7 percent from three even though they forced an average of 17 turnovers. The Spartans hit 11 threes the first time these two teams played, and after witnessing Thursday’s offensive clinic, I think they’re going to get the best of the Ohio State defense. Thad Matta’s team wins on defense by eliminating the three, but Michigan State is a bad match-up because of the way they share the ball (11th in the country in assist rate), and how they can spread things out in transition with multiple shooters that can burn you. Kenny Kaminski, Travis Trice, Adreian Payne and Appling all shoot over 40 percent from distance for the season, and Gary Harris is 16-of-33 in his last four games from that distance. I think the Iowa game showed what everyone thought at the beginning of the season. Michigan State is about to go on a run, and Ohio State won’t stop them this afternoon.

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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.

If Keith Appling is truly back, the Spartans could be set for another March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

If Keith Appling is truly back, the Spartans could be set for another March run. (Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

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.

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Will Michigan State Ever be the Team We Thought It Could Be?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 3rd, 2014

Branden Dawson’s return on Saturday was supposed to be the first positive step towards a full-strength resurgence for Michigan State, a “welcome back” moment for a bona-fide National Championship contender. Instead, the Spartans looked more like a fledgling team with a disorganized collection of talent than a veteran bunch ready to make a deep March run. “We didn’t play like a Michigan State team is supposed to play,” Tom Izzo said after the  53-46 home loss to Illinois. But with only a handful of games remaining before the stakes are significantly raised, the question has suddenly become two-fold for Izzo and his struggling group: Will they hit their peak before it’s too late? And—perhaps more ominous—is their peak even as high as first thought?

The concerns are piling up for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. (Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

The concerns are piling up for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. (Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite his noticeable rust on the offensive end, Dawson’s first game back was actually encouraging in a lot of ways for the Spartans. The athletic junior seemed just as aggressive on the glass and tenacious on defense as he did before suffering the broken hand that kept him out a month. In 25 minutes of action, Dawson was energetic and unafraid, pulling down a team-high four offensive rebounds to go along with a pair of steals and a blocked shot—all-around pretty good, considering the long absence. The larger, more glaring concern was the play of Keith Appling; only recently back from an injury himself (wrist), the point guard remains nowhere near the player he was before the affliction. The Appling of old would confidently (and accurately) launch from behind the arc, explosively attack the basket, and knock down free throws when he earned trips to the line. It’s the reason he scored in double figures for seven straight games earlier this season and was in the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year. But since his three-game hiatus in mid-February? The senior leader has attempted only three three-pointers, seldom penetrated the lane, and has gone just 2-for-8 from the charity stripe in 103 minutes of combined action. Among his misses were several potentially game-altering attempts against the Illini on Saturday that might have changed the outcome had they gone in. Whether it’s the lingering wrist injury or something else, Appling cannot continue to play at this level if the Spartans are going to make a run in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament—he’s simply too important, both as a scoring option and a facilitator, to remain a non-factor.

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