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.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.