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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.

Missouri assistant Ernie Nestor reportedly resigns, set to be hired as assistant at Navy

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After one season as an assistant at Missouri, Ernie Nestor has resigned, Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com is reporting.

He recently had an interview with Navy and, according to CapitalGazette.com, has been hired as an assistant with the Midshipmen.

Nestor took his first coaching job at the collegiate level in 1976, when he became the head coach at James Madison. He then went on to coach Wake Forest in two separate stints, as well as California, George Mason, South Carolina, Elon, and most recently Missouri.

“Ernie has 42 years of coaching experience and is someone I have a great deal of respect for,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said at the time of Nestor’s hiring. “He just has a tremendous understanding of the game and has a great ability to teach it as well.”

The Tigers finished 30-5 last season, including 14-4 in the Big 12. They were upset in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament by Norfolk State.

Navy ended this past season with an overall record of 3-26, including 0-14 in the Patriot League.

Nestor has had a number of NBA players pass through his program, including Tim Duncan, Josh Howard, and Darius Songaila.

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

Randolph Childress joins Wake’s hoops staff; cue the McInnis crossover

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One of Wake Forest’s greatest players just joined its basketball staff. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Randolph Childress is the Demon Deacons’ new director of player development, a transition from his previous job as an assistant to athletic director Ron Wellman. It’s a standard move to help former players transition to assistant coaching roles when those positions aren’t open or the former player simply needs more experience.

But if I were Wake, I’d just have Childress stage shooting drills. Non-stop shooting drills.

The MVP of the 1995 ACC tournament made a school record 329 3-pointers during his tenure and is second in school history with 2,208 career points.

But all of that is secondary to the single greatest highlight ever involving a crossover move and a taunt before drilling a 3-pointer. Yes, the Jeff McInnis move. Stupendous.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRJMsoIptQo]

That highlight should be shown at every Wake game and be included in everything Childress does at Wake.

Childress calls the new job “a dream come true.” I call it a no-brainer for coach Jeff Bzdelik. Next up should be convincing Tim Duncan to become an assistant to work with his guys’ post moves.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Projecting Anthony Davis in the NBA

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Anthony Davis is everywhere. This morning I heard two different stories about him on National Public Radio. When you’re of interest to an audience who may or may not even care about sports, then you’ve pretty much peaked as a student-athlete.

Anthony Davis is the best player on the best team in college hoops. He’s 6-10 with a handle.  He dunks everything in sight. He can step out and hit a jumper. And he can matchup defensively at a number of positions. Everyone assumes two things about Davis: that he will jump to the NBA, and that he’ll be the No. 1 overall pick.

The New York Times called him one of the ten clear franchise NBA players in the past 20 years.

He is the clear No. 1 pick in a deep and talented N.B.A. draft class. He is the most dominant player in college basketball. The question is not whether Davis will be a good pro — he is going to be a perennial All-Star — but whether he will become great the way Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were. To understand Davis’s position in the pantheon of elite players, the best comparison may be to Chris Webber. He was an abundantly talented player who never seemed quite as dominant as his talent suggested he should be.

The author goes on to explain that the comparison has little to do with skillsets, and instead focuses on each players ability to be too unselfish. Seeing that Davis takes the smallest percentage of shots when he’s on the floor in comparison to the rest of Kentucky’s 7-man rotation, maybe the author has a point. But it’s also true that Davis is simply executing the offense. Kentucky fills the floor with four players who can break their man down off the dribble. Davis’s job is to make the defense pay when they lose track of him. Considering he makes a ridiculous 67% of his 2s, he’s doing a pretty good job.

Stewart Mandel struggled to find a good comparison.

A better benchmark is probably someone like future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Only here’s the thing: Davis is more athletic. He’s most similar in build to the once-lanky Kevin Durant, a more dominant scorer, but Durant is not the same caliber defender.

Really, there is no apt comparison.

These comparisons are fun to make, and it’s difficult to find angles for this game that haven’t already been covered. But frankly, I’m not worried about next year. I’m not worried if Davis’s pro career rivals Tim Duncan’s.

Tonight Anthony Davis is a college basketball player, and I’m going to enjoy that while it lasts.

Michael Rogner is the founding editor of Run the Floor, and can be found on Twitter: @RunTheFloor

 

The downside to the NCAA tournament? Seniors last game

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The NCAA tournament is the most exciting three weeks in sports. Of course, I’m biased when I say that. I spend 12 months a year immersed in the sport; most people are only concerned with college hoops in the month of March.

But regardless of how much hoops you consume through out the season, the excitement of multiple games happening at once, the upsets sprung by teams like Lehigh and the fact that you are one Louisville win away from taking the lead in your office’s bracket pool is what makes this tournament great.

There is a downside, however. For every grand story line about a mid-major running through the tournament’s first weekend, there is a senior that is just so easy to root for that sees his collegiate career come to an end. Here are five kids that would ideally have permanent NCAA eligibility:

Jae Crowder, Marquette: On the court, with braids running down his back and a frame that looks like it belongs on the gridiron, Crowder is an intimidating presence. Scary, almost. Off the court, he’s friendly, humble and a great interview. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Crowder almost didn’t make it to the Division I level. After spending a year at an unaccredited Junior College, Crowder had to do two years worth of work in one year at Howard College before enrolling at Marquette. Is it worth mentioning he won a national title that year was named tournament MVP?

Kim English, Missouri: Kimmie is one of the only athletes worth following on twitter, if not for the commentary he provides on teams and players than for the way uses poetry to talk about hoops. There is more to English than just a twitter feed, however. He overcame a stuttering problem in high school, which can’t be an easy thing to deal with when your name is Kim and you’re growing up in Baltimore.

Draymond Green, Michigan State: There are few leaders out there as strong as Green. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories and the anecdotes over the last few months, as Green as carried the Spartans from a group that lost their starting back court from a 15 loss team to a No. 1 seed, Big Ten regular season tri-champions and Big Ten tournament champs. That’s almost as impressive as Green’s skill-set; he’s the first player from a power conference to average 15 points, 10 boards and three assists since Tim Duncan.

Jorge Gutierrez, Cal: There may not be a player in the country that is more miserable to play against than Gutierrez, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s fiery, he’s tough, he’s never one to back down from a challenge and he will quite literally be in your jersey defensively. The Pac-12 Player of the Year, Gutierrez came a long way from a kid that immigrated from Mexico as a 15-year old and spent years living with two other kids his age in Denver to try and make their way as basketball players. Read this story on him.

Robbie Hummel, Purdue: What is there to say about Hummel that hasn’t been written a thousand times already? He was on the road to being an all-american before two torn ACLs in the span of 10 months cost this Purdue program two shots at the Final Four. He came back this season and earned First Team All-Big Ten honors. I’ll admit, I got dusty seeing him hold back tears while walking off the floor on Sunday night.

Big Ten conference tournament preview

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It isn’t exactly going out on a limb to say that the Big Ten is the strongest conference in the country this season.

What’s more debatable, however, is trying to figure out who, exactly, is the best team in the conference.

Heading into the season, the answer was simple: Ohio State. Not only were they returning the popular pick for National Player of the Year in Jared Sullinger, but they had a pair of all-conference guards in Aaron Craft and William Buford to offer as sidekicks. But as the season has worn on, its become clear that the Buckeyes are lacking some consistency to their supporting cast.

Midway through the season, Michigan State hopped up on into the favorite’s chair. They have gotten back to playing Tim Izzo basketball — defending, rebounding, out-muscling — and made a run to get into a commanding position at the top of the league. But after losing two straight games to close out the regular season and seeing star freshman Branden Dawson go down with a torn acl, all of a sudden Sparty looks beatable.

I like Michigan, but they don’t have the same amount of talent as the rest of the teams at the top of the league. And as good as Trey Burke has been, he’s a freshman going through his first-ever March Madness. Indiana has looked equal parts awesome and mediocre at different points in the season. Purdue doesn’t defend this season. Illinois has collapsed. Wisconsin has been very beatable.

What’s it all mean?

Well, this weekend in Indianapolis should be a lot of fun.

The Bracket

Where: Indianapolis

When: March 8th-March 11th

Final: March 11th, 3:30 p.m. CBS

Favorite: Ohio State

I’m going to pick the Buckeyes here for a couple of different reasons. First of all, their stars have been through the postseason before. They may have a young roster age-wise, but this group has experienced success in this setting. Second of all, having a defensive presence like Aaron Craft to hound ball-handlers all weekend is a good thing. Thirdly, I think that William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are going to have a big tournament. And, finally, Jared Sullinger. He’s one of the most dominant low-post presences in the country.

And if they lose?: Michigan State

I would have had the Spartans as the favorite, but I think the injury to Dawson is going to be costly. They still have Draymond Green, arguably the most versatile player in the country. There is size up front and capable players in the back court. But what Dawson brought to table no one else can. He’s a big, athletic small forward that crashes the glass and scores hustle points. He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and he certainly played a large role in why the Spartans turned this season around.

Other contenders?: This is where I’ll talk about Michigan. We all know about Burke already, but Michigan is more than just a one man show, especially when Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing the way he did in the last game of the regular season. Throw in the fact that everyone is a good-to-very good three-point threat, and the Wolverines can hang with anyone.

Sleeper: Indiana

It is kind of hard to label anyone that has done what IU did this season a sleeper. That said, I think that the issues Indiana has defensively could end up biting them.

Deeper sleepers: Illinois has the talent, but talent only gets you so far. I find myself having a tough time putting any kind of faith into Wisconsin. And I think that Purdue is going to end up being overmatched inside. So I’ll take Northwestern, but mainly because I want to see John Shurna make the NCAA Tournament.

Studs:

John Shurna, Northwester: Shurna can flat out score the ball. He’s a perfect fit on the perimeter for what Bill Carmody wants to run.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Trust me, there is a reason he routinely sees double- and triple-teams.

Draymond Green, Michigan State: Tim Duncan is the last high-major player to average 15 ppg, 10 rpg and 3 apg.

Trey Burke, Michigan: I wonder if Thad Matta is regretting looking past the Columbus.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: The freshman has been Indiana’s most important player.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.