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.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.