ATLANTA – Need an acrobatic driving layup to clinch a close game? There’s an App for that.
Need a 3-pointer with the shot clock running out? There’s an App for that.
Need a floater from the left side of the lane, a banker from the right side, a clever alley-oop to a big man? There’s an App for that, too.
Keith Appling was all those things for Michigan State on Tuesday night in a 67-64 victory over Kansas. At times during his first two years with the Spartans, he was none of those things.
Always a good athlete, freshman Appling struggled with ball handling and decision-making – hence his 53 turnovers and 45 assists. As a sophomore, Appling couldn’t make a jump shot if his scholarship depended on it – hence his 25 percent accuracy from 3-point range.
But now as a junior, Appling is doing what Tom Izzo players inevitably do: growing and developing into a leader and a playmaker.
“Michigan State is a big-time program, it’s always had players who could perform down the stretch,” Appling said after scoring 19 points on just nine shots to lead the Spartans. “The older you get in the system, the more trust (the coaches) have.”
There was a ton of trust placed in Appling on Tuesday night. With backup point guard Travis Trice out with a concussion and broken nose, the 6-foot-1 (ha) Detroit product had to go 38 minutes against the Jayhawks. And those 38 minutes came at the culmination of a five-day stretch that could make a triathlete cry.
[Related: Kansas blows lead, comes up short against Michigan State]
In keeping with Izzo’s anyone-anytime-anywhere scheduling philosophy, Michigan State played Connecticut in Germany on Friday night. Then the Spartans immediately flew home, landing Saturday afternoon. Given the fairly soft performance in an upset loss, Izzo had a team meeting that night.
And then he had two practices Sunday. And another practice Monday. And then this game Tuesday in Atlanta.
Asked about how it feels to get off a plane from Europe and report for two practices the following day, center Derrick Nix said, “It’s kind of bad. But we don’t make excuses for ourselves.”
No excuses necessary in this game. Michigan State showed up with something to prove to itself, and proved it.
“We got a little bit of our pride and character back,” Izzo said.
And Appling got his shooting eye back. He made all three 3-point shots he attempted – the first time in his career he’s shot 100 percent beyond the arc when attempting more than one 3-pointer.
Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife said the Spartans use a funnel-shaped net around the basket called “the gun” to force players to shoot with greater arc. For Appling, a notorious low-arc shooter, Fife said they had the gun “cranked to the ceiling.”
“Last year when I shot the ball it was flat,” Appling said. “I kind of bought in and it’s paying off for me.”
Said Izzo: “He did it the old-fashioned way. He locked himself in the gym all summer. He shot more than he’d ever shot in his life and tonight he got rewarded.”
[Also: John Calipari calls out Duke players]
Appling’s final 3 of the night, with 1:30 left, put the Spartans up four and twisted the game permanently in their favor. But after a three-point play by Kansas’ underutilized Ben McLemore (just seven shots), Michigan State needed one more big play to put the game away in the final seconds.
That’s when Appling got the ball at the top of the key, shot clock draining, and slashed into the lane against Kansas center Jeff Withey, who had switched out on him. With the 7-footer looming behind him and the rim blocking any chance at a right-handed layup, Appling had to switch to the left hand and kiss the ball off the backboard and in.
“Appling took the game over,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Michigan State is playing in the nation’s toughest conference this season, but don’t bet against the Spartans being a major factor in the Big Ten race. If Appling plays like this and is complimented by slashing wings Gary Harris (18 points against Kansas) and Branden Dawson (12), plus the inside tandem of Adreian Payne and Nix, State will have one of the better lineups in the nation. And there is sufficient help off the bench as well.
And Kansas will be just fine as well. Self’s players develop every bit as impressively from year to year as Izzo’s, and freshmen McLemore and Jamari Traylor will make major impacts. The Jayhawks looked pretty good here and will look a lot better in a couple of months.
But they didn’t have the player who could make the biggest plays Tuesday night. There’s an App for that, and he was wearing Spartan green.
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