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.