Feb. 17, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. -
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-line Columnist
It was as complete an all-around performance by a Michigan State guard as any in recent memory. And depending on where the Spartans end up in the Big Ten race, Keith Appling's effort on defense, offense and every fast-break step in between against Wisconsin Thursday may eventually merit recognition as one for the ages.
In a game No. 7-ranked MSU had to have to keep destiny in its owns hands, against a nemesis that has inflicted so much heartache and disappointment over the years, Appling drove the beat as well as he drove the ball in the 69-55 victory.
Appling would have been credited with a good night's work if he all he did is score 20 points, on 6-for-12 shooting from the floor, while passing out four assists against two turnovers.
He would have been the No. 1 or 2 star if he would have merely defended Badger counterpart and Cousy Award finalist Jordan Taylor so well he'd miss his first six shots, make just 3 of 13 for the game and finish with 13 points.
And Appling would have gotten a pat on the back if he simply got the transition attack to hum the way coach Tom Izzo always envisions it at Michigan State Utopia.
Appling sucked the air out of the building by pulling off a rarely seen trifecta that was still generally perceived as a complementary component to Draymond Green's 20-point, 10-rebound, five-assist performance.
Not that Appling minded.
"I'm happy about the win," he said. "That means the most right now. We're shooting for a Big Ten championship, so we're just trying to get every win we can."
Players, especially those who have struggled offensively as Appling had earlier in the Big Ten season, talk about feeding off their defensive success. It was hard to tell if Appling got better offensively because of his defense, or vice versa.
"I'd say it was just a complete game," Appling said. "I knew I had to play well for us to win tonight, and I was going to have to play well defensively because Taylor is great guard capable of going off for 30. Me being solid on both ends was going to be a key to getting a victory."
Taylor scored 27 in No. 15 Wisconsin's previous game, a 68-61 overtime victory against Minnesota. And since scoring a season-high 28 in the 63-60 overtime loss to MSU in Madison on Jan. 3, Taylor had been the catalyst to a Badger resurgence made up of seven wins in the previous eight games.
Only the first of this three baskets, which didn't come until five seconds remained in the first half, was scored against Appling, who also played one of his smartest games of the season. Unlike previous outings when he was thrown off by committing an early foul or two, Appling went into the second half with a clean slate.
"Keith Appling was phenomenal," Izzo said while leaving absolutely no room for debate.
What made it all the more impressive was how it brought the game plan off the page and put on the court against Wisconsin's deliberate swing offense designed to milk the clock and limit the opponent's possessions, and its amoeba-like halfcourt defense that can gum up the works for an offense, such as MSU's, that relies heavily on set plays.
Taylor could never get the Badgers offense into a rhythm against Appling and MSU's helping defense, and the result was 18-for-53 (34 percent) team shooting. Meantime, by pushing the ball every chance he got, or whenever practical considering backup point guard Travis Trice sat out the game with an ankle injury and Brandon Wood was limited, Wisconsin's defense couldn't get back in time to set up.
"I try to push the ball as much as I can when we play Wisconsin because they're a pretty solid defensive team in the halfcourt," Appling said. "I just try to get as many easy baskets in the open court as I can."
Those high-percentage shots led to 52.2-percent efficiency (24 of 46) and left the Spartans with the distinction of being the first team to make at least half of its shots against the Badgers this season.
The lack of missed shots also was reflected in MSU getting outrebounded, 33-30, but Izzo wasn't complaining - too much. The Spartans had a 15-0 edge in fast-break points in the first half, and the up-tempo barrage was responsible for getting them a 12-8 deficit to a 31-17 advantage before Taylor's jumper in the waning seconds.
Badger guard Ryan Evans said Michigan State simply "overpowered" Wisconsin during that stretch. "When you get in that big of a hole, it's pretty tough," said Badger coach Bo Ryan.
Appling chipped in three layups during the run, and saved the best for last.
After rebounding a Taylor airball near the baseline, Green threw a long outlet pass to Appling who took the ball in stride and finished with a dunk that evoked a roar from the energized Breslin Center crowd with 37 seconds left and kept it buzzing through halftime.
What's more, MSU's running game wasn't even as good as it can be with athletic Brandon Dawson, who scored seven points, effectively manning the wing, and a fresh backcourt rotation.
"Appling creates a lot," Izzo said. "We had a good one-man break with him, but Dawson also deserves a lot more credit than his miniscule stats (suggest) at times. He's starting to run that lane better and get open but we have to get (centers Derrick) Nix and (Adreian) Payne involved a bit more.
"When they run, it clears out for Appling and he is as quick a guard as I have ever had. We couldn't run as much as we wanted to because we weren't at full strength with Trice being out and Wood injured."
Winning a championship often depends on peaking at the right time, and with five games in 13 days, including a tough test at Purdue on Sunday followed by a trip to Minnesota, a visit from Nebraska and another road game at Indiana, MSU could be playing its best basketball of the season and not have it reflected in the standings.
"We may lose a few games but we still will be better, and I like the progress we have made," Izzo said.
What Izzo has to like, after seeing the way MSU ran against the Badgers, is how much better the Spartans still can be with a self-assured Appling at the helm.
"No matter what happens, I know my capabilities and the things I can do on the basketball court," he said. "No bad game is going to deter my confidence."