State Farm Champions Classic - Michigan State v Kansas

Keith Appling shows he can be Michigan State’s closer

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ATLANTA – Keith Appling finished with 17 points and four assists in Friday’s season-opening loss to UConn on Ramstein Air Force base in Germany, but that solid stat-line does an impressive job of hiding the truth about his performance: Appling played far from his best game, failed to get Michigan State consistent quality shots down the stretch and was at the helm for an ugly offensive performance by the Spartans.

In simpler terms, the Spartans’ offensive struggles cost them a game against a team they had no business losing to, and as the point guard and first scoring option, much of the blame falls on Appling’s shoulders.

Judging any team based on a single performance, especially when that single performance comes on European soil, is wholeheartedly unfair. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop critics from wondering whether or not Michigan State was actually overrated this season. Appling was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school and entered last season with all kinds of expectations. Had he once again failed to improve his game? Was this just going to be another year made up of unfulfilled expectations, inconsistent perimeter shooting and too many turnovers?

It could be.

But after Tuesday’s performance, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Appling scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, while also adding three assists and three steals as No. 21 Michigan State overcame a second half deficit to knock off No. 7 Kansas 67-64. But, as they did against UConn, Appling’s numbers only tell half the story.

On seemingly every crucial possession, Tom Izzo put the ball in Appling’s hands. When Kansas pushed their lead to six early in the second half, Appling drew a foul on one possession and found Adreian Payne for a lob on the next. Three minutes later, after Kansas got the lead back up to seven, Appling scored on back-to-back tough drives to keep the Spartans within reach. He hit a three at the 6:55 mark to give Michigan State their first lead since the 6:27 mark of the first half.

Most importantly, however, were the plays Appling made in the final three minutes. He found Branden Dawson, who was fouled and hit both free throws, with 2:07 left to put the Spartans up 62-59. After two free throws form Elijah Johnson, Appling dribbled left off of a high ball-screen, froze the hedger Jeff Withey, and buried a three from the top of the key. And after Ben McLemore finished an and-one off of a foul-induced Appling turnover, Sparty’s new go-to guy dribbled off that same high-ball screen, drawing Withey out before blowing by him for an acrobatic layup.

That put Michigan State up 67-64 with 12 seconds left, ensuring that Kansas would need to hit a three to force overtime. They didn’t. Spartans win.

And all this happened with Appling and freshman counterpart Gary Harris playing a heavier-than-normal workload with back up point guard Travis Trice laid up with a broken nose and concussion. Impressive, indeed.

So what changed in Appling in the four days since the game in Germany?

“It was very, very well coached,” Tom Izzo said with a laugh after the game. “He did a great job of staying under control.”

“He’s a phenomenal athlete, but he’s started to make better and better decisions. He continues to work on it, and I think he’s fallen in love with the game a little bit more, too. He’s a guy that’s watched a little bit more film than he did last year and he’s starting to understand things. I’m proud of Keith, I really am.”

Appling’s decision-making will be the difference for Michigan State this season.

I like Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, but I doubt that even Izzo believes that his big men are much more than rebounders and defenders at this point. They aren’t exactly Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Even Branden Dawson is more of an undersized four than he is a pure small forward at this point in his career.

The offense has to come from somewhere, which is what makes Appling so important.

It wasn’t just his play in the clutch on Tuesday night; Michigan State looked like a different team in the first half against Kansas than they did against UConn. There was movement offensively, they were scoring in transition, and, quite frankly, they looked like they had a clue at that end of the floor. That’s the benefit of Appling, the facilitator.

And it’s fine if he plays that role, because it means he’s embracing the idea of being a point guard.

So long as he doesn’t forget about his value as the closer in the clutch.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

No. 6 UCLA routs USC 102-70, snaps 4-game skid against rival

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 21:  Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins shoots a free throw against the UAB Blazers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — Bryce Alford, whose fresh-faced looks belie his skills as a sharpshooter, landed on his rear after a drive and snarled.

On the bench, his coach-father Steve Alford knows that look. In the stands, his mother Tanya recognized it, too.

“I like it when he snarls,” the elder Alford said. “I wish he would snarl in warmups. When he gets that, he goes to another level toughness-wise.”

The younger Alford scored 26 points, including 10 straight in the game’s final seven minutes, and No. 6 UCLA beat Southern California 102-70 on Saturday night, snapping a four-game skid against its crosstown rival while improving to 5-0 in February.

“When I get it going for my team and I know I’m helping my team win, it’s just what happens to my face,” Alford said.

Playing their first game in six days, the Bruins (22-5, 9-5 Pac-12) avenged an 84-76 loss at USC last month to remain the league’s only unbeaten team this month. They are 14-1 at home.

“It took a home loss to Arizona and a road loss at USC to really grab guys’ attention,” Steve Alford said. “They want to make a run not just in the conference race but in the conference tourney and postseason.”

TJ Leaf added 19 points and Thomas Welsh had 16 points and a career high-tying 16 rebounds for the Bruins, who handed USC its worst loss of the season.

“Any time you’re playing a rival like that and you’re up big at the end, it just gets fun,” Leaf said.

Especially with star freshman Lonzo Ball at the helm.

Alford’s alley-oop pass set up Ball’s dunk that had the crowd in a tizzy before Alford hit UCLA’s 10th 3-pointer for a 96-66 lead. Another dunk by Ball got the Bruins to the century mark for the ninth time this season.

“Going into March, we got to hit our strides now,” Ball said.

Bennie Boatwright had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Trojans (21-6, 8-6). They tied a season high with 14 3-pointers in last month’s win, but hit seven this time and just two in the second half of their first game in a week.

“It felt like it snowballed late,” Boatwright said. “That’s a good word for it.”

Leaf was held to eight points on 4-of-10 shooting while in foul trouble in the Bruins’ previous loss. His shooting was on early in Saturday’s game, hitting 5 of 7 for 12 points in the first half.

The Bruins tied the game 23-all on Isaac Hamilton’s 3-pointer, one of five made during their 28-11 run to close the half and take a 46-34 lead. Ball’s 3-pointer with four seconds remaining was UCLA’s seventh of the half.

Led by Welsh, the Bruins extended their lead to 15 points to open the second half. He scored eight of their 18 points to start the half, with Leaf hitting a 3-pointer that made it 61-46.

The Trojans never got closer than nine points before the rout was on.

“It felt like we still had a chance midway through the second half but then we couldn’t get any stops,” USC guard Jordan McLaughlin said. “Once they started making shots they’re a tough team to stop.”

Alford stretched UCLA’s lead to 81-61 on 10 straight points. He made a 3-pointer and then drove the lane, got hip-checked by Elijah Stewart to draw the foul and high-fived courtside fans before making the free throw. Alford got fouled on UCLA’s next possession, made both and scored on their next trip down the court.

“You’re not going to beat UCLA when you shoot 33 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3,” said USC coach Andy Enfield, who got a technical late in the game. “We missed a lot of easy shots and this is a tough place to play, but we did not get stops when we needed them.”

BIG PICTURE

USC: The Trojans have lost two in a row with four games left in the regular season, including at No. 5 Arizona next week.

UCLA: The Bruins’ hopes of winning the Pac-12 title remain slim with four games remaining in the regular season. They trail first-place Arizona (one loss) and second-place Oregon (two losses).

UP NEXT

USC: Visits No. 5 Arizona on Feb. 23 in the second of three straight road games. The Trojans lost by seven points in the first meeting last month.

UCLA: Visits Arizona State on Feb. 23, a team the Bruins beat by 22 points last month.

VIDEO: John Calipari’s sensational rant on coaching business over Gottfried, Fox

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After No. 13 Kentucky landed an 82-77 win at Georgia that they probably didn’t deserve, head coach John Calipari went on a terrific rant about the state of the coaching profession based on Georgia head coach Mark Fox and the now-fired-but-still-coaching Mark Gottfried.

And he says a lot in here – video below – including good points about Gottfried’s success at N.C. State and the fact that Fox has been incredibly unlucky this year. From overtime losses at Florida and at Kentucky to a loss at Texas A&M because of a clock malfunction to a loss at home to Kentucky when star forward Yante Maten goes down with a knee injury 90 seconds into the game, no one has been more snake-bit than Georgia this season.

The worst part?

It’s coming in a year where Fox’s job is on the line.

But here is the best point that Cal makes: “He keeps his team together. That’s coaching. Not when things are going good. It’s when things go south and you lose a bunch in a row, how do you get them to go?”

“They do this to us without Maten. That’s what kind of coach Fox is.”

Cal also went in on N.C. State for their treatment of Gottfried.

“We’re firing coaches in midseason. Are you s******* me?,” Cal said. “We’re firing coaches in midseason. You know what I’m putting my contract? You can fire me at midseason but you’re going to have to pay me $3 million. Oh, you’ll let me stay now, won’t you. You can fire me midseason, but you’re paying me.”

“Every coach in the country, PUT IT IN YOUR CONTRACT. What if Mark Gottfried goes on a run at the end and gets to the NCAA Tournament, which he was in four out of five years? Two Sweet 16s, which is not done at NC State. What happens if he now if he goes and wins and gets another team [into the tournament]. He had good players but they’re young, they’re like my team. It’s hard to do this with young guys.”

Down two starters, No. 5 Arizona survives Washington

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 91-75. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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SEATTLE — Lauri Markkanen had 26 points and 13 rebounds, Allonzo Trier scored a season-high 21 points and No. 5 Arizona held off a challenge from Washington for a 76-68 victory on Saturday night.

Arizona (25-3, 14-1 Pac-12) remained on top of the conference standings and won its fourth straight. The Wildcats did it short-handed, with starters Dusan Ristic and Kadeem Allen out because of injuries.

It wasn’t easy, as Washington put forth one of its best efforts of the season but still couldn’t snap a losing streak that’s now reached nine games, tied for the longest in school history. Chance Comanche’s rebound and dunk with 52 seconds left finally gave Arizona enough of a cushion to hold on in the final moments.

Markelle Fultz scored 26 points, but the Huskies (9-18, 2-13) had no field goals over the final 4:41 of the game.

Comanche finished with 12 points filling in for Ristic. Ristic was out after spraining his left ankle in Thursday’s win over Washington State. Allen was considered a game-time decision after dislocating a finger on his shooting hand, but never left the Wildcats’ bench.

Washington took its only lead at 52-51 as Fultz spun through the lane and converted a difficult layup with 14:50 remaining. Arizona coach Sean Miller called timeout and Arizona immediately went to a zone defense that stymied the Huskies. Meanwhile, Trier hit his fourth 3-pointer to put Arizona in front and dunks by Markkanen and Comanche pushed the lead to 60-53 with 10:40 remaining.

David Crisp’s 3-pointer snapped a nearly five-minute drought without a field goal by Washington, but Markkanen scored four straight points to push the lead to 67-58 with 7:20 left.

The Huskies didn’t go away. Fultz rattled in a 3-pointer with 4:37 left and Arizona’s lead was down to 69-65. It was the final field goal for the Huskies as the Wildcats pulled away in the closing moments.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Trier had a combined 11 points in his previous two games and made 3 of 17 shots in those games against California and Washington State. He was 6 of 10 against the Huskies, including five 3-pointers, a new career high.

Washington: Center Malik Dime played for the first time since breaking a finger in his shooting hand last month and since serving a suspension for slapping a fan at Colorado. Dime played just 20 minutes due to foul trouble but at least gives the Huskies another size option on the interior the final few weeks of conference play.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats return home to host USC on Thursday night.

Washington: The Huskies travel to rival Washington State next Sunday.

VIDEO: Louisiana-Lafayette wins game on half court buzzer beater

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Jonathan Stove for the win!

Georgia’s Yante Maten leaves loss to No. 13 Kentucky with knee injury

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13:  Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Playing what may be their most important game of the season, Georgia suffered a brutal blow less than two minutes into the game.

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe stumbled after scoring on a drive to the rim and fell into the right knee of Georgia’s star center Yante Maten.

Maten, a 6-foot-8 junior averaging 19.4 points this season, did not return to the game.

This is a brutal loss for the Bulldogs, who needed to beat the No. 13 Wildcats to have a realistic chance of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but for the sixth time this season, Georgia lost a hard-fought game to a top 25 team.

The final score on Saturday was 82-77 despite Georgia’s star point guard J.J. Frazier going for 36 points. De’Aaron Fox scored 12 of his 16 points down the stretch to help the Wildcats land a come-from-behind win in a game that, frankly, they did not play well enough to win.

That’s the sign of a good team, but that probably won’t be much comfort for Kentucky fans that are tired of seeing their team struggle. Fox finished with 16 points, five boards and five assists while Malik Monk chipped in with 16 points.

The win does keep the Wildcats atop the SEC standings.