March 8, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Whenever Michigan State's toughness is questioned, a red flag shoots up higher than Beaumont Tower because nothing is more central to the way the Spartan basketball program has been built.
So earlier this week when coach Tom Izzo brought up the T-word publicly for perhaps the first time all season, a warning signal was tripped. Unlike with some of Izzo's previous teams whose lack of heart drove him to distraction, he wasn't criticizing the Spartans for not being tough enough. They had proved they were time after time as individuals and as a team.
Rather, he was opening asking if they had a suitable reserve, and the necessary leadership, to rise up from damage incurred while going through a gauntlet of three straight losses to Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan?
Were they tough enough to overcome the disappointment of losing control of their own Big Ten championship destiny? Was point guard Keith Appling tough enough to shrug off the emotional toll exacted by a wayward scoring touch that resulted in 0-for-9 3-point shooting in the previous three games and a game-losing turnover against the Wolverines?
And would Michigan State have the intestinal fortitude and mental grit to press through the remaining regular season games and into the postseason?
If Thursday night's 58-43 body-slamming victory over Wisconsin is an accurate seismograph, Izzo won't be wondering aloud about the Spartans' toughness again anytime soon. Appling, guard Travis Trice, center Adreian Payne and guard Gary Harris routinely sacrificed their bodies throughout the game.
With MSU's championship hopes rekindled by Ohio State's upset of league-leading Indiana on Tuesday, there was no mope in the Spartans' demeanor as they took the fight to the feisty Badgers from the outset.
"I think it was a step forward (with regard to toughness)," Izzo said. "Trice is on the floor. Payne's on the floor. Harris is on the floor. Appling spent a lot of time on the floor. I thought we gave great effort. I definitely think that some of those plays where we got after it a little bit and we came up with loose balls..., we were seeing it on the film, boy, when you play Wisconsin they get a lot of the 50-50 balls.
"It's one of their trademarks, and I thought tonight we got our share of them."
The Spartans forced 17 turnovers, including a career-high six steals by Trice, and converted them into 23 points.
"The one thing we always look forward to every game is we want to be the toughest team out there," Trice said. "Coming into tonight, we knew we were going to have to give a little bit extra especially because we were playing Wisconsin."
In the first half, despite missing his first three 3-point tries, Appling continued to demonstrate steely resolve and made the fourth for a 20-12 lead with 4:51 remaining.
That basket may ultimately prove to be a turning point in his, and MSU's so-called third season, also known as championship time. Appling finished with an eight-game-high 19 points and a long-awaited smile Izzo said meant as much to him as the win.
In the second half, while Michigan State was in the midst of an 18-3 run that would provide an insurmountable 43-22 lead, Payne had everyone holding their collective breath.
While driving to the basket along the baseline, he went up for a dunk from just outside of the paint but lost the ball on the way up, and with both hands on the rim, he lost control and dropped in free fall directly onto his back. Then, after a quick-damage assessment, the unfazed Payne had the presence of mind while lying on the floor to latch onto the ball and save the possession by calling time-out.
When Payne joined the huddle in front of the Spartan bench, Izzo practically jumped into the towering 6-foot-10 center's arms to give him a hug.
"That kind of reminds me of the teams I used to have," Izzo said. "It is important to me and to him, but I thought it got the crowd going, it got the players going (and) it got the coaches going."
And with just over six minutes remaining, the 6-1, 190-pound Appling crashed headlong, and at full speed, into appropriately named Mike Bruesewitz, a bruising 6-6, 223-pound forward, near midcourt, and appeared to be momentarily stunned. But Appling brushed off the collision with a sniff and kept going as if nothing happened.
Such demonstrations of toughness are "probably the main thing that gets (Izzo) excited the most," said Harris, who had four steals and 11 points.
Izzo has consistently held Appling up as his toughest player since he arrived on campus, and while he may not have appeared that way during his shooting slump, he certainly did with his perseverance.
"It was just a matter of me staying with it and not letting the missed shots get to me," Appling said. "We lost three in a row and there was disappointment, upset, frustration - all of the above.
"I practice with all these guys each and every day and I know what type of players they are and individuals they are, so I never questioned our toughness."
A Michigan State win over Northwestern on Sunday, coupled with an Indiana loss to Michigan, will give the Spartans a share - along with U-M, the Hoosiers and possibly Ohio State if it beats Illinois - of their fourth Big Ten title in five years and Izzo's eighth overall.
However, if Indiana beats Michigan and the Spartans still take care of business against Northwestern, they'll finish alone in second place, ahead of Michigan in the standings and with a better seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
With the elephant in the room raising the question of whether the Spartans will cheer on the Wolverines, Izzo has set the MSU mantra as one of rooting neither for nor against any other team, and wanting only for what's best for the Spartans.
"The only sad part for me is we had a chance to have destiny in our own hands and we didn't care of that," Izzo said. "So, I'm pretty comfortable with feeling that what happens, happens. I mean that because we had our chance to do it and yet, I heard (Miami Heat star) LeBron James say last night that sometimes in long streaks, or when playing for things, you've got to get a little lucky.
"So we'll see if we're lucky or unlucky."
As long as MSU sends Derrick Nix out with a win on Senior Day, Appling will be satisfied.
"The only team I root for is Michigan State," he said.