Keith Appling’s struggles hurt No. 4 Michigan State in loss to No. 1 Indiana

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There is a reason Keith Appling is a captain on this Michigan State basketball team. In a 72-68 loss to No. 1 Indiana Tuesday night, though, Appling struggled from the floor for the third straight game, raising legitimate questions about what sort of road the junior guard and his Spartan teammates are paving on their way to March.

In the loss to Indiana, Appling finished just 1-of-8 from the floor, including 0-of-4 from three-point range, and committed four turnovers to go along with two assists. That means in the current three-game stretch, Appling is 8-of-33 from the floor (24 percent). Following his poor performance earlier in the year against the Hoosiers, that makes him 2-of-12 with two assists and eight turnovers against the nation’s top team.

Granted, sometimes the Spartans can make it work. He deserves credit for his seven assists in a win over Michigan and getting to the free throw line in a victory over Nebraska. But against the nation’s No. 1 team and as we look forward to March, Michigan State needs Appling to, simply put, be better.

“Having Keith out [with foul trouble in MSU’s first meeting vs. Indiana] hurts that, too, because he is the more aggressive guy in penetrating, gets to the free-throw line and he puts people in position to get to the free-throw line,” coach Tom Izzo said prior to the game. “Maybe they did hold us, maybe we self-checked ourselves, maybe a combination of both.”

Part of the problem can be attributed to the absence of backup Travis Trice, who had missed the last four games due to a concussion and played just six minutes Tuesday against Indiana. Appling has continually logged 35+ minutes per game and that could be a cause of his shooting woes from the floor.

“It puts a lot of pressure on Keith, and Keith was a warrior [versus Nebraska], but I think maybe it hurts some of his shooting,” Izzo said.

The key has been for Appling to get to the free throw line to help heal the struggles from the floor, or to excel distributing the basketball. Neither were the case Tuesday. That caused a ripple effect, forcing freshman Gary Harris to shoulder more of the offensive weight with 19 points and Adreian Payne with 17.

Appling has the chance to get back on the right track and Trice being back and fully healthy will help some in that regard, but Michigan State will need him if they want to be an elite team come tourney time.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Gonzaga’s Mark Few named AP Coach of the Year

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has added to his program’s banner season with an individual award, being named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

Few led the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The Zags enter the national semifinal with a 36-1 record. Up until Feb. 25, they were flirting with a perfect season. A loss to BYU is currently the only blemish on their season.

Few also won his 500th career game during the course of the 2016-17 season. Since 2014, two coaches from outside the major conferences have earned his honor. Gregg Marshall was named AP Coach of the Year in 2014 after leading the Shockers to a perfect regular season.

This was a very competitive race this season. Sean Miller lost two players expected to be key pieces this season — and had Allonzo Trier miss 19 games — but guided Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. Jay Wright led Villanova to another Big East title despite two cornerstone pieces — Ryan Arcidiancono and Daniel Ochefu — gone from last season’s national championship team. For a while, Baylor’s Scott Drew seemed to be the favorite. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason top-25 poll but went on to earn a No. 1 ranking.

Few’s season continues on Saturday against South Carolina.

Frank Mason is named AP Player of the Year

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Kansas point guard Frank Mason III was named the AP Player of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

The senior floor general for the Jayhawks headlined the AP All-American team, which included UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Villanova Swingman Josh Hart, Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan and North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line during the 2016-17 season. He helped guide Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.

He becomes the fourth senior in a row to win the award, preceded by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminksy and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

He had previously been named player of the year by NBC Sports.

TJ Leaf declares for the 2017 NBA Draft

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UCLA freshman forward TJ Leaf announced he is declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft on Thursday afternoon.

The 6-foot-10 Leaf averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. His shooting numbers were also impressive, connecting on 62 percent of his field goals, including 27-of-58 from beyond the 3-point arc.

This news comes six days after Lonzo Ball officially announced he had played his last game at UCLA. Neither move is shocking, with Ball in the running for the No. 1 overall pick and Leaf also pegged as a first round selection.

The Bruins will have quite a bit of turnover next season with guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton exhausting their eligibility. UCLA head coach Steve Alford has a six-man recruiting class set to come in to help replenish the roster. It’s led by versatile forward Kris Wilkes, point guard Jaylen Hands, and big men Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.

CBT Fancast: Catching up with famous Final Four fans: Adam Morrison, Marcus Paige, Neil Everett

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For today’s episode, I spoke with the famous fans of the programs in the Final Four, from the greatest player in Gonzaga history to the almost-star of last year’s Final Four to the most famous dual Gonzaga and Oregon fan in the world.

Sindarius Thornwell misses practice on Thursday

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Sindarius Thornwell has been the best player in the NCAA tournament to date, yet he was not in the building on Thursday when the South Carolina Gamecocks practiced and he was nowhere to be found during South Carolina’s media availability.

A school spokeswoman told reporters that Thornwell was back at the hotel, that he was sick and resting.

Thornwell is averaging 25.7 points in four games in the NCAA tournament. He’s been sensational. If he’s not at his best this weekend, that’s a massive blow for South Carolina’s chances of getting to a national title game, but South Carolina head coach Frank Martin doesn’t seem too concerned.

“I’ve got a bug myself. Luckily I don’t have to play,” Martin said. “He had a little body temperature last night when we landed. And he was a little better this morning. But I kind of told our trainer, just feed him fluids, do what doctors do and let him rest rather than stress him right now. He’s our most intelligent player. And I don’t mean to say that demeaning the other guys. He understands basketball at a high, high level, he doesn’t need to be on the practice court to understand what we’re doing.”