East Region

Keith Appling

A trying season comes to a disappointing end for No. 4 Michigan State

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NEW YORK — It started with an ankle injury that Gary Harris suffered during the offseason.

Harris, Michigan State’s all-american shooting guard, missed five weeks of action in the fall after hurting the ankle, an injury he consistently re-aggravated throughout the first month of the season. Then it was Keith Appling’s wrist injury, which he suffered in a loss to North Carolina in December and aggravated in a loss to Georgetown in February. Adreian Payne sat out for a month in the middle of the season as he battled plantar fasciitis and a sprained foot. Branden Dawson broke his hand hitting a table during a film session. Travis Trice and Matt Costello seemed to be sick more than they were healthy.

This isn’t new information. The talking point all season long when it came to the Spartans was that all we were waiting for was the team to get to 100% and they would be off and running on their way to a national title.

It never came.

Instead, their season came to an end with a 60-54 loss to No. 7 seed UConn in the Elite 8 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon, a loss that was as head-scratching and frustrating as any game this season.

The Spartans looked fatigued after the first eight minutes of the game. They couldn’t create any kind of an advantage in the paint despite the fact that Payne and Dawson were bigger, more athletic and more talented that Phil Nolan, Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels. They settled for way too many threes, shooting 29 of their 46 field goal attempts from beyond the arc. They committed careless fouls and turned the ball over in so many weird ways. Well, maybe weird isn’t the right word.

“Out of body,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “I like that better because ‘weird’ does not explain how ridiculous some of those were.”

Frankly, it was a fitting end for the Spartans this season, as the 2013-2014 campaign was a year spent trying to figure out why this team couldn’t find a way to put it all together. I don’t care how the season played out, I would still take a team coached by Tom Izzo that features Payne, Harris, Appling and Dawson over just about any other team in the country.

But the inconsistency was just too much to overcome in the end, as was the disappearance of Appling.

That will be one of the most intriguing stories to follow in the next couple of days. Appling played like an all-american the first month of the season, but he was a complete non-factor after the loss to Georgetown. Was it his confidence that was shot? Was his wrist still injured? More importantly, was Izzo right to leave him in the lineup despite the struggles?

“He’s been through a lot this year and never got back to the guy he was in the first half, but not at all his fault and I just felt for him,” Izzo said. Appling and Payne became the first four-year players under Izzo at Michigan State that didn’t make a Final Four.

It may be a while before Michigan State heads back. They’ll lose Appling and Payne to graduation, will likely lose Harris to the NBA and could even see Dawson depart for the professional level. With a couple of recent misses on the recruiting trail, it may be a rebuilding year in East Lansing next season.

Kevin Ollie leads No. 7 UConn to Final Four despite transitional state of program

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NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie had some big shoes to fill when he took over the UConn program prior to the 2012 season.

He was replacing Jim Calhoun, a legend in Nutmeg State for turning Storrs, CT, into the home of one of college basketball’s elite programs. Calhoun won three national titles and made a fourth Final Four at a program that had a non-existent hoops identity before his arrival. He quite literally built the UConn program.

Ollie was Calhoun’s hand-picked successor.

And he was taking over the program at a time when UConn was hurting. They were coming off of a disappointing, opening round tournament exit after entering the year as the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. They had just wrapped up their probationary period for the violations that were committed during the recruitment of Nate Miles and were heading into a season where they were banned from participating in the postseason thanks to low APR scores.

That postseason ban meant that UConn would be forced to miss out on the final installment of the Big East tournament as we know it, as their bid to move into the ACC was not accepted, forcing the Huskies into the American and creating rivalries against the likes of South Florida and Houston instead of Duke and North Carolina.

Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb went pro. Alex Oriakhi transferred out of the program.

That’s the hand that Ollie was dealt.

And in his second season as UConn head coach, in the first year he was eligible to lead a team into the postseason, the Huskies are headed to the Final Four after knocking off No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54.

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Boo Willingham saw this coming.

A seldom-used reserve that played for the Huskies from 1991-1995, Willingham knows Ollie as well as anyone this side of Ollie’s wife knows him. They were roommates for four years in Storrs. Willingham was the best man at Ollie’s wedding. “That’s my best friend,” Willingham said while celebrating in the UConn locker room after the game.

“I know the fabric of Kevin Ollie. I know what he’s made of,” Willingham said. “The first day he stepped on campus as a freshman, he came in and was competing against one of the best guards in the country in Chris Smith at the time. He was a little skinny from California that didn’t back down. He poked his chest out, he had a couple of fights in practice and he got into with a couple of guys.”

“He was a tough guy that loved to compete. And he loved to get other to compete with him.”

It was that competitiveness that kept this team and this program together last season. The Huskies had nothing to play for in 2012-2013, and yet they still managed to win 20 games in their final season as a part of the Big East conference.

“Everybody was saying we weren’t playing for nothing, and a lot of media outlets saying we weren’t playing for nothing, but we were playing for something,” Ollie said on Saturday. “We were playing for what’s on our jersey, and that means a lot. If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UConn, it means a lot to put on that jersey.”

He’s been tasked with trying to keep the Huskies, a school and a program that he loves, relevant as a top ten basketball program when it’s the limited value of the school’s football program to the companies that broadcast games that has put them in a position where their rivalry with SMU will be more important than their rivalry with Syracuse; where Sunday’s visit to Madison Square Garden will be their last postseason appearance in a building that Shabazz Napier refers to as UConn’s “third home” for the foreseeable future.

That won’t be easy to do, and reaching this Final Four doesn’t change that fact. Ollie will still be fighting an uphill battle, especially when you consider that the guy that carried the Huskies all season long, Shabazz Napier, won’t be in a UConn uniform next season.

But what this win does prove is that the Huskies picked the right guy for the job.

“He proved me and a hell of a lot of people right,” Calhoun said after the game. “He’s like a son to me. He’s got character, he’s got great knowledge of the game, he works exceptionally hard, he can relate to the kids. And he’s got all UConn guys around him. That fiber of UConn has not gone any place.”

All you had to do was look up into the crowd on Sunday afternoon to see that. Among the 19,000 fans that packed into the Garden were a myriad of UConn alumni. Khalid El-Amin, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Taliek Brown, Cliff Robinson, Andre Drummond. Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman are on the UConn coaching staff. Even Kemba Walker’s mom showed up.

The support system is there. The UConn program is very much the UConn family. There is more than enough history and fan support to sustain the program.

The future of the program is cloudy, but the Huskies aren’t worried about the future. At least not right now. They’re worried about the present. They’re worried about playing Florida in the Final Four.

That’s a Final Four, I might add, where they will not be joined by anyone from the ACC or the new Big East.

Elite 8 Preview: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 7 UConn

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On Sunday morning, we will be breaking down the final two Elite 8 matchups. Here is our look at No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 7 UConn:

WHEN: Sunday, 2:20 p.m. (TBS)

WHERE: Madison Square Garden (East Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: UConn will be looking to make their first trip to the Final Four under a coach other than the legendary Jim Calhoun. Shabazz Napier will be looking to cement his legacy as the second-coming of Kemba Walker. On the other side, Michigan State will be looking to send their seniors — Adreian Payne and Keith Appling — to the Final Four, the first of their career. If the Spartans lose, Payne and Appling will go down as the first players in Tom Izzo’s tenure with the Spartans to spend four years in East Lansing without making a Final Four.

KEY STATS: Michigan State has this reputation for being a team that plays rugby on a basketball court. Three yards and a cloud of dust. It may surprise you, then, that was this group does as well as anyone in the country is shoot the three. The same can be said about UConn, as both programs sit just a shade under 40% from beyond the arc on the season. Who’s hitting their jumpers on Sunday?

KEY PLAYERS: This game has a ton of star power. Shabazz Napier, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne. The list goes on. On Friday night, when UConn knocked off Iowa State, DeAndre Daniels went off for 27 points and 10 boards, scoring 13 of UConn’s first 15 points in the second half. When Daniels plays like that, UConn is a completely different team. Shabazz Napier is their all-american. He’s their guy. But when he doesn’t have to do it all, the Huskies are so much more dangerous.

POINT SPREAD: Michigan State (-5.5)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Who guards Adreian Payne?: Payne is like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in that he’s just a nightmare to try and matchup with. He’s 6-foot-11 with three-point range, the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, and a post game. UConn doesn’t have anyone to guard him, but Payne has a habit of going through scoring droughts.

2. Does Branden Dawson stay hot?: He’s averaged 17.5 points and 8.2 boards since the start of the Big Ten tournament, shooting 69.7% from the floor during that stretch. He’ll be guarded by the likes of Niels Giffey, Daniels and Lasan Kromah on Sunday. That’s going to be a tough cover for the Huskies.

3. UConn’s transition defense: Michigan State wants to run. That’s what they do. They get out in transition and try to get easy buckets. There are two easy ways to start a fast break: turnovers and bad shots. UConn has a habit of doing both.

CBT PREDICTION: Michigan State

Elite 8 Preview: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 2 Wisconsin

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On Saturday and Sunday, we will be breaking down all eight of the Elite 8 matchups. Here is our look at No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 2 Wisconsin:

RELATED: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Top 16 Players | Eight Critical Individual Matchups

WHEN: Saturday, 8:49 p.m. (TBS)

WHERE: Honda Center, Anaheim (West Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: Bo Ryan has long been considered one of the best coaches in college basketball. Sean Miller is relatively new to the big time, but he’s shot his way into the conversation as one of the nation’s elite. The other thing they have in common? Neither coach has ever made a Final Four at the Division I level. (Ryan has won four Division III national titles.) That will change on Saturday night.

KEY STATS: Arizona’s defense leads the country in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom. Wisconsin is fourth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. Strength on strength. Something’s got to give.

KEY PLAYERS: It wasn’t a secret before the Sweet 16, but it became painfully obvious on Thursday night: Arizona’s front court depth is non-existent. Kaleb Tarczewski is the only post player that Sean Miller feels comfortable using at this point in the season, and he spent much of Thursday night strapped to the bench with foul trouble. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has a pair of talented front court scorers. Frank Kaminsky is as versatile of a five as you will find in the country, and Nigel Hayes is a year away from being an all-Big Ten player. Can they get Zeus into foul trouble?

POINT SPREAD: Arizona (-3)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Arizona’s transition game: If San Diego State proved anything on Thursday night it’s that Arizona can be beaten if you force them to up against a set defense in the half court. The Aztecs did that by avoiding turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, forcing Sean Miller to rebound with all five players on the court. Wisconsin doesn’t go after offensive rebounds like that, but they’ll drop three or four guys back on defense to protect against the fast break.

2. Wisconsin’s threes: Wisconsin shoots 37.6% from beyond the arc. They get almost two-thirds of their scoring on three-pointers. Arizona is as good as anyone in the country at chasing shooters off of the three-point line, but since they do it out of the pack-line defense, it can be difficult for opponents to take advantage of that by pounding the ball inside. The Badgers need to shoot well.

3. Will Wisconsin have to go big?: The most exploitable mismatch that Arizona will have will be whoever ends up guarding Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. He’s a explosive, 6-foot-7 small forward that will be guarded by one of Ryan’s little guards.

CBT PREDICTION: Arizona

Branden Dawson leads No. 4 Michigan State past No. 1 Virginia, into the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — Branden Dawson was on track to be the next Michigan State star when he arrived in East Lansing back in 2011. He was a five-star prospect, a top 20 recruit that Tom Izzo pulled out of Gary, IN. After an ACL injury at the end of his freshman season limited his development heading into his sophomore campaign, this year, his junior year, was supposed to be his time to shine.

Only … it wasn’t.

At times dominant and at times non-existent in the early part of the season, Dawson found himself struggling early on in Big Ten play when he broke a bone in his right hand, an injury that sent the Michigan State season into a tailspin. He missed nine games. The Spartans lost five of them, losing two of the first three games after he was able to return to the floor.

Something changed at the start of Big Ten play. After nearly three seasons of struggling to live up to the expectations that he had as a high schooler, Dawson’s turned in the best two weeks of basketball of his career. He averaged 15.0 points and 7.3 boards in three wins in Michigan State’s Big Ten tournament title run, and it didn’t stop there.

Dawson went for 24 points and 10 boards to lead No. 4 Michigan State to a 61-59 win over No. 1 Virginia in Friday night’s second East Regional semifinal. The Spartans will advance to face No. 7 seed UConn on Sunday, as the Huskies knocked off No. 3 Iowa State in the opener.

Dawson’s performance followed up the 26 points and nine boards he had as the Spartans held off No. 12 Harvard in the Round of 32. All told, since the start of tournament play, Dawson is averaging 17.5 points and 8.2 boards while shooting 69.7% from the field.

“I’m thinking about going and breaking my hand with the way that he’s playing right now,” junior guard Travis Trice said, chickling, after the game.

Dawson’s physicality and raw athleticism was a difference-maker for the Spartans, as he finished a handful of dunks around the rim in traffic. Virginia’s defense is as tough as any in the country, which is why Dawson’s play was so important. The Cavaliers had Michigan State scouted to perfection — as senior point guard Keith Appling put it, “Man, it was almost like they do every single play. They do where the ball was going before it got there.” — which limited what the Spartans were going to be able to get off of their sets.

In other words, as cliche as it may sound, the Spartans needed their playmakers to make plays, and Dawson played a vital role in the two most important buckets of the game.

Midway through the second half, after Michigan State had scored a pair of back-to-back buckets, Trice was able to leak out, getting himself free for one of the Spartan’s lone transition buckets: a deep, but open, three off the dribble on a 1-on-2 “break”. It capped a 7-0 spurt and came in the middle of a 13-2 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 49-42 lead. But the reason that Trice was able to get that shot was that Dawson corralled a rebound in the middle of three Virginia players, sparking the break with a perfect outlet.

“I’m happy got the rebound because I leaked out,” Trice said.

Virginia made their run, tying the game at 51 with less than two minutes left, but the Spartans responded. After Adreian Payne buried a three to put the Spartans up 54-51, he came back on the next possession and threw an alley-oop to Dawson, a pass that wasn’t exactly expected, as Dawson tells it.

“Honeslty I didn’t know Adreian Payne was going to throw it,” Dawson said with a laugh. “I just went up and caught the ball and tried to dunk it.”

The bucket put the Spartans up 56-51 and Virginia wouldn’t get the ball with a chance to tie the game again until there were just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.

Michigan State moves on, thanks to Dawson, and they’ll play Sunday for the right to play in the program’s first Final Four since 2010.

In the end, the injury to Georges Niang was the death of Iowa State’s tournament run

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NEW YORK — No. 7 UConn didn’t have an answer for Dustin Hogue.

He was 15-for-19 from the floor, finishing with a career-high 34 points while spending the majority of the first 30 minutes being the sole reason that No. 3 Iowa State remained within striking distance of the Huskies. The Huskies made the decision to use whoever was guarding Hogue as a help defender, and Hogue made them pay. Rim cuts, offensive rebounds, he was even rewarded with a number of isolations in the second half.

The problem was that he didn’t get help until UConn was up 49-32 midway through the second half, and while Melvin Ejim finally hit some jumpers late and DeAndre Kane finally looked like more than a senior that was trying to do just a little bit too much in the second half, the Cyclones till lost, 81-76.

“UConn had a very good game plan I thought defensively,” Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. “They got us standing around a little bit.”

MORE: A DeAndre took over Friday in the Garden, just not the one we thought

In the first half, it was obvious how much the Cyclones missed Georges Niang. Kane spent the first 20 minutes trying — but not succeeding — to go into takeover mode. He was just 2-for-7 from the floor in the first 20 minutes while Melvin Ejim hit just 1-for-11 from the field before hitting a pair of jumpers in the final 30 seconds. The length of Amida Brimah was just too much for the Cyclones inside, and while he was only credited with one block, he changed six or seven shots around the rim, shots that the Cyclones normally.

“They did a good job in packing in the paint,” Hogue said. “We really didn’t move the ball too much and we got real stagnant in our iso.”

The other thing that UConn did was take the air out of the ball offensively. They didn’t allow the Cyclones to get out and run, and they did it the easiest way possible: they made shots. It’s possible to turn a made shot into a fast break, but it’s not an easy thing to do, and as a result Iowa State was forced to try and attack UConn’s set defense. There’s a reason the Huskies were in KenPom’s top ten in adjusted defensive efficiency this past season.

What Niang provided the Cyclones was a matchup nightmare. There aren’t many power forwards in the country with Niang’s offensive repertoire: he can score with his back to the basket, he can score facing-up from 15 feet and he has enough handle to bring the ball up the floor and get the Cyclones into their sets.

But more importantly, he would have forced Kevin Ollie into a nearly impossible personnel decision.

With Niang on the floor, the Cyclones would have had three forwards that stood at least 6-foot-7 with the ability to play on the perimeter, meaning that not only would one of UConn’s bigger guards — Niels Giffey or Lasan Kromah — would have had been forced to guard Hogue or Niang instead of Kane.

The difference that would have had was evident down the stretch. When Kane got hot, when he started scoring late, it was when the Huskies went to a three-guard lineup and Shabazz Napier was forced to guard him.

Injuries are a part of sports, and every athletes and coach will freely admit that.

But it’s a shame when, five months into a season, loses a player that is so integral to what they do.

“To lose a guy like Georges niang and still go out and beat a North Carolina and have an opportunity, after being down 17 [to UConn], tell you everything you need to know about this group of guys,” Hoiberg said.

“I’ve been a fan of Iowa State basketball since I was a little kid, and seeing this program taken to new heights because of guys like [this]. … Couldn’t be more proud of this group.”