Tag: 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.


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

Michigan State v Penn State
source: Getty Images
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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)


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