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Big Ten Tournament: Defense carries No. 22 Michigan State to title

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One day after shooting better than 50% from both the field and from beyond the arc in a win over No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 22 Michigan State got the job done defensively in their 69-55 win over No. 8 Michigan to grab the Big Ten tournament title. Michigan, which led the Big Ten in both field goal and three-point percentage, shot 31% from the field  and 6-for-23 from beyond the arc.

Michigan State did a very good job of taking away the ball screen and dribble handoff situations in which Michigan can be so lethal when allowed to get going. Nik Stauskas scored 17 points but he was made to work awfully hard for those points, doing so on 4-for-15 shooting. And with Derrick Walton Jr. being the only other Michigan player to score in double figures, this proved to be too much for the Wolverines to overcome against a balanced Michigan State offense.

RELATED: CBT’s Final Bracketology before the official bracket is announced

Adreian Payne (nine rebounds) scored 18 points and Branden Dawson and Gary Harris adding 15 apiece for Michigan State, which made up for a poor afternoon from beyond the arc (2-for-17) by making 67.6% of its two-point attempts. Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in three-point percentage, making 39.8% of its attempts, so Sunday’s outing isn’t a typical one for this group. And if the Spartans can continue to work the ball inside as they did against Michigan, they’ll be fine offensively.

Injuries have been an issue all season long for Michigan State, but with Dawson and Payne at full strength (and Keith Appling closer to it) this weekend  the Spartans were able to put together three quality performances. There will still be skeptics who make the claim that the “when the Spartans are full strength” cries are nothing more than excuses; that all teams have to navigate health issues throughout the course of a season.

But to make that statement is to ignore the obvious in regards to Michigan State, that this is a different group than the one we saw for much of Big Ten play. And with that being the case, Tom Izzo has himself a complete team capable of playing deep into the NCAA tournament.

Big Ten Tournament: No. 22 Michigan State takes another step forward in win over No. 12 Wisconsin

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It’s been a familiar refrain all season long: when No. 22 Michigan State gets back to full strength they’re a serious national title contender. But as the season wore on injuries continued to add up, resulting in a lack of on-court cohesion that left more than a few skeptical that it would ever happen.

Michigan State’s play in Indianapolis this weekend may convert some of those skeptics, with the Spartans (25-8, 12-6) knocking off No. 12 Wisconsin by the final score of 83-75 to advance to Sunday’s Big Ten title game.

The Spartans shot 56% from the field and 7-for-13 from beyond the arc against Wisconsin (26-7, 12-6) , taking control of the game in the first half with their ability to not only string together stops but get out and run off of Badger misses as well. As a result, Tom Izzo’s team was able to find quality looks early in the shot clock as they kept Wisconsin from getting set in its half-court defense. And for a team that at times struggles with defending dribble penetration, this proved to be problematic for Wisconsin.

RELATED: Is your team in the field of 68? Check our latest Bracketology

Six players, including all five starters, reached double figures for Michigan State with Adreian Payne’s 18 points leading the way. The balanced scoring was a good sign moving forward for Michigan State, as was the fact that they committed just eight turnovers on the afternoon.

In Michigan State’s final four regular season games the Spartans averaged 15.3 turnovers per contest, going 1-3 as a result with the lone win coming against an Iowa team that’s been reeling of late. In the Big Ten tournament the Spartans are averaging just nine turnovers per game, and their assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7 is a slight improvement over their ratio in regular season conference play (1.4).

Keith Appling (ten points, six assists) and Travis Trice (11 points, four assists) were responsible for ten of Michigan State’s 15 assists against Wisconsin, with each committing just one turnover. Wisconsin isn’t a team that will force a high number of turnovers, as opponents committed just 9.3 per game in Big Ten play, but there’s a need to be patient and not get into too much of a hurry against the Badgers. Michigan State was able to remain under control for much of the afternoon, and the play of their guards was a key reason why.

These games in Indianapolis represent valuable opportunities for a rotation that hasn’t had as much time to develop chemistry as Izzo would hope for during the season to become a more cohesive unit, and the Spartans have taken advantage in wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin. Sunday’s final against No. 8 Michigan will help as well, and the Michigan State team many held out hope would show up at some point is beginning to round into form at the right time.

Late-game offensive execution costs No. 22 Michigan State in Columbus

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For much of this season the prevailing theme regarding No. 22 Michigan State is that once completely healthy, the Spartans could be one of the favorites to win the national title. With guard Keith Appling and forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne all in the fold alongside guard Gary Harris, Michigan State has a rotation that’s as talented and experienced as any in the country.

Michigan State showed glimpses of this potential at various points in Sunday’s 69-67 loss at Ohio State, but their offensive struggles down the stretch resulted in the Spartans’ sixth conference defeat.

Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) didn’t score a point in the final four minutes and 30 seconds, missing all four of their field goal attempts and committing three turnovers. Obviously the Buckeyes (23-8, 10-8) deserve some credit for this, as they are very sold defensive team. But when forced to execute in the half-court down the stretch Michigan State struggled, and this something they’ve got to clean in the days leading up to the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan State turned the ball over on 24.2% of its possessions against Ohio State, the fourth consecutive game in which the Spartans have turned the ball over on at least 21% of their possessions. Michigan State’s record: 1-3. Payne was responsible for five of those turnovers, and Appling finished Sunday’s game with six assists and three turnovers. After seemingly snapping out of his slump in the win over No. 24 Iowa, Appling made just one of his four shot attempts and scored two points.

Part of that was the Ohio State defense, with Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott both being capable defenders. But Appling also didn’t consistently show the assertion that was present in the second half of Thursday’s win, and that has to change heading into postseason play. Sunday’s performance had its positives however, with Michigan State making ten three-pointers and shooting 51.9% from the field in the first half. But they weren’t as effective in the second half as they were in the first, resulting in a tough loss in Columbus.

There’s no reason to panic however, and earning a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament gets a group that’s been banged up for much of the season an extra day’s rest. And it isn’t like the Spartans don’t have the talent needed to rectify the issues they struggled with in Columbus.

For the first time in months, No. 22 Michigan State and Keith Appling look healthy

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Keith Appling scored all 12 of his points in the second half, including eight points in a 12-4 surge that sparked a massive second half run as the No. 22 Spartans knocked off No. 24 Iowa, 86-76.

Those eight points from Appling came in a flurry, and the hope is that they will change the course of Michigan State’s season. It started with a free throw. Appling had been struggling with a wrist injury — and some shaky confidence — in recent weeks, and after a scoreless first half and a missed front end, Appling hit the second of two free throws which finally seemed to give him some confidence.

He made a layup off of a turnover on the next possession, following that up with a driving, reverse layup that showed the kind of explosiveness and aggressiveness we’ve been waiting to see out of him. Three possessions later, he buried a three in rhythm, and it was all downhill from there as the Spartans outscored Iowa 36-18 over a 12 minute stretch.

Appling would add another three and a lob to Dawson after driving through Iowa’s entire defense.

I know that it was only 20 minutes of basketball, but Appling’s second half was the best basketball that he’s played in a long time. He looked confident and he was attacking the basket, and the Spartans were a different team when he did. Their energy level was way up, they got out in transition, they locked up Iowa defensively. For the first time since January, Michigan State looked like the Michigan State we’ve been waiting for.

Here’s the question: was this just a blip on the radar? Was this the emotion of Senior Night boiling over? Was this just a by-product of the fact that Iowa hasn’t been able to keep a sofa cushion out of the paint for a month?

Or was this a sign of things to come?

We’ve said it all season long. If Michigan State gets healthy, they will be one of, if not the favorite to win the national title.

In the second half on Thursday night, they finally looked healthy.

Report: Tom Izzo considering playing Keith Appling less

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After a season full of injuries and illnesses, Michigan State finally has everyone on their roster available to play.

That didn’t stop the Spartans from losing to Illinois on Saturday, their third loss in the last four games and sixth loss in the last 10 games.

The problem now is Keith Appling, who has played like a shell of himself since sitting out three games to try to get his ailing right wrist healthy. He says it doesn’t hurt anymore, according to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free-Press, but that he’s favoring it, struggling to find the shooting form he had before suffering the injury on December 4th.

It’s put head coach Tom Izzo in a tough situation. It’s March. Michigan State is more or less out of time to try and get healthy, so does he try to help Appling figure out what’s wrong or does he simply pull Appling off the court for backup Travis Trice when he’s struggling?

“Yeah, I really am (considering that) as far as minutes goes and things like that,” Izzo said Monday. “I’m not going to pull Keith on senior night. I’m not going to put that pressure on him.”

“Could (Trice) have had a few more minutes? I think that’s a good one to throw stones at me on because I think it’s true. I think it’s valid. But I’m also in that catch-22 of wanting to win games and wanting to get us as ready as we can get for the tournament, and what’s going to be the best tournament team, and what’s going to help us win games?”

CBT Roundtable: Most Important Player heading into the NCAA tournament

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In today’s Roundtable, we will each make a pick as to who is the most important player in the National Title race.

Rob Dauster: This pick is easy: Keith Appling.

I’ve been saying it all season long. If Michigan State can get healthy, they’re going to enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the national title. Gary Harris is over the ankle issues tht plagued him earlier in the season. Adreian Payne’s foot has gotten better. Travis Trice and Matt Costello have gotten past what ails them. Even Branden Dawson is on the verge of returning from his broken hand.

The one guy that Tom Izzo is waiting on is Appling. He injured his wrist in a hard fall back in December against North Carolina, and it hasn’t been right since then. That was two and a half months ago. He even sat out three games at one point. So the question is: will Appling ever get healthy? Will he ever be the guy that looked like an All-American back in November? Because when he plays that way, it makes the Spartans that much better. He was their closer, their facilitator, finally living up to the billing he’s had since he came out of high school.

If he can get back there, the Spartans will have a great shot to cut down the nets in North Texas. If he can’t, well, they’re still going to be a contender, but as we have seen all season long, they won’t be the same team.

Raphielle Johnson: No. 5 Kansas has steadily emerged as one of the favorites to win the national title, with the growth of freshmen Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins being one reason why. But if the Jayhawks are to win a national title there’s another, more experienced player who holds the keys. That would be point guard Naadir Tharpe, who’s currently averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. Back in November more than a few folks (myself included) questioned whether or not the Jayhawks would be better off with freshman Frank Mason at the point, especially when considering how he played down in the Bahamas. But as the season’s progressed it’s clear that Tharpe is the player best suited to run the show.

When Tharpe plays well he’s both distributing the basketball and scoring in an efficient manner, which makes the Jayhawks an even tougher team to defend. And in many of Kansas’ six losses Tharpe hasn’t played at the level he’s displayed for most of the season. In those games he’s averaged 6.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, shooting 37.2% from the field with his performance at Kansas State (13 points, ten assists) being the best of the bunch. Kansas has the talent needed to make a deep run, but they can’t win six straight if Tharpe isn’t at his best.

Scott Phillips: For me, it has to be Duke’s Jabari Parker. Doug McDermott is the Player of the Year, but does anybody actually believe Creighton has a chance to win a title? Duke does have a chance at a title and a lot of that will have to do with the play of Parker.

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The focus for many will obviously be on Jabari’s offensive capabilities — and whether he can consistently score at a high level over a potential six-game stretch — but what about on the defensive end of things? Parker has to be able to score and rebound during the tournament while also having to face some of the best interior players in college basketball as a defender.

Is Parker up to the challenge? That remains to be seen, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I watched Parker and Simeon win four consecutive Class 4A state championships in Illinois and you just didn’t bet against that dude when it came time for tournament play.

Obviously, the stakes, the level of play and the overall talent is much higher at the collegiate level, but Parker is a proven winner and will be a huge factor if Duke can make a Final Four run.

Terrence Payne: The former No. 1 team in the nation stumbled with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Duke last week. In those defeats, Tyler Ennis shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field. And while he still protected the ball — 12 assists to four turnovers — Duke was able to limit his effectiveness on the offensive end in the Blue Devils’ 66-60 win on Saturday.

What’s interesting about those pair of losses is that Syracuse had opportunities to win, and remain unbeaten. BC took Cuse to overtime, before pulling off the three-point upset win. The odds weren’t in the Orange’s favor with 10 seconds to go against Duke, but it was still only a one-possession game before Jim Boeheim became an Internet meme with his first career ejection.

Syracuse has gotten itself into a lot of close calls this season, and Ennis has been a key reason why the Orange have been able to prevail in many of those outcomes. Obviously the buzzer-beater against Pitt stands out, but it’s more so his decision-making and his poise down the stretch with the game in the balance. Entering that game against Pitt two weeks ago, Ennis had yet to commit a turnover in the last five minutes of a game.

Though, Ennis struggled from the field in the late stages against BC, typically a time where he flourishes. It was likely just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive freshman campaign. A season which could end in Arlington for the Orange, if Ennis continues to thrive under pressure.

Matt Giles: Scottie Wilbekin is the reason why Florida’s offense is ranked fifteenth nationally. The junior guard, who is also arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, is no scoring slouch – 38 percent from beyond the arc – and his ability to create for the other Gators makes the team a favorite to reach the first weekend of April. Casey Prather can convert off the bounce, but the rest of the squad requires help to boost their scoring average.

The majority of Florida’s offense, when not in transition, is spent either spotting up or using pick and rolls, and Wilbekin is skilled at simultaneously understanding defensive spacing and how to best position his teammates to score. Nearly a quarter of UF’s offensive possessions are jumpers, and of those, 79 percent come from three, so Wilbekin’s passing acumen – per Hoop-Math.com, only 35 other teams are more dependent on an assist for a three point attempt than Billy Donovan’s squad – is crucial if Florida is to remain offensively efficient and avoid lulls, like during the second half against Vanderbilt.

Michael Frazier II, Patric Young, and Dorian Finney-Smith – three Gators whose percentage of shots taken is more than 20 percent – all are talented on offense, but without their point guard to position them in a perfect scoring opportunity, Florida likely wouldn’t be mentioned in any 2014 national title conversation.