March 19, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
COLUMBUS - Muck is a great medium for growing onions and lettuce, but it's a terrible surface for basketball.
Michigan State found that out Sunday when Saint Louis followed through on its pledge to "muck things up" - almost to filthy perfection - in its NCAA Tournament third-round game at Nationwide Arena.
"It really did work to a T," Billikens forward Brian Conklin said of the plan. "I said it was going to be a war, dirty basketball, a defensive battle and it ended up being that. The guy we wanted to take shots, he hit a couple, and that's the difference in the game."
What Saint Louis didn't plan on, however, was "the guy," Spartan point guard Keith Appling, being such an effective "mudder." The Billikens dropped a defender off Appling to help defend against MSU's inside players, who've been so devastating in recent games, and he took advantage.
The Spartans needed every one of Appling's 19 points to hang on for a 65-61 victory that put MSU through to the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in the last 15 seasons under head coach Tom Izzo. Top-seeded Michigan State will play No. 4 Louisville Thursday in Phoenix.
Although it appeared both teams were mired in a grind-it-out battle for every shot, rebound and loose ball, Appling steered clear of most of the carnage.
"It was a very fun game to play in," Appling said. "It was pretty physical, hard-fought. But that's what this time of year is all about. It's win or go home. I'm pretty sure neither team wanted to go home, but at the end of the day, one team had to."
The game met the tournament's survive-and-advance criteria on several levels. Rare is the team that makes it to the Final Four without having to fight for its bracket life.
Rarer still is the team that can win such a game with one player taking over. Draymond Green was superb again with 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists despite being hounded relentlessly. Given the fact he had half of MSU's assists in a game where every possession was more valuable than gold, he probably deserves an honorary triple-double to go with the real one he had in the Spartans tournament-opening win over LIU Brooklyn.
The game depended on how well Appling responded to Saint Louis' lack of respect for his shooting ability, and he more than met the challenge with his best scoring performance since he had 20 points against Wisconsin 10 games earlier. And, it was his second-best effort in 22 games.
Saint Louis picked its poison, and it was lethal to its Sweet 16 hopes. Appling made just 1 of 3 from 3-point range, but his triple from the right corner, off a sensational cross-court pass by Green along the baseline, gave MSU seven points of breathing room with 1:34 remaining. The ball tip-toed all around the rim before dropping through the net.
"All night they had pretty much been begging me to shoot the ball," Appling said. "We got in the huddle during one of our timeouts and Draymond instilled some confidence in me, telling me I was a 3-point shooter last year, `So shoot the ball.'
"We drew up a play for him and the defense collapsed and I was wide open. He hit me with a pass that was perfect, right in my shooting pocket, and I was able to knock it down. As soon as it came off my hand, it felt good, and once I saw it go through the hoop, I was all smiles."
"I was begging him to shoot, too," said Green, who was so sure it was going in, he was hightailing it to the defensive end while the ball was still bounding on the iron.
Beginning with an impossible layup made while he was falling backward nearly parallel to the floor with 11:42 remaining, Appling scored 13 of Michigan State's final 20 points, including four critical free throws on six attempts.
Appling, a former McDonald's All-American who averaged more than 28 points a game as a Detroit Pershing High School, and who went off for a Class-A title game record 49 points in 2009, has struggled to score at times this season. Nevertheless, he was taken aback by Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus' decision to sag off him.
"It did kinda surprise me a little bit," Appling said. "I just had to keep my composure and let things happen, be patient and continue to run our offense."
Appling made 7-of-14 shots while also exploiting the Billikens' inattentiveness with back-cuts to the basket.
"I just said to him, make the inside-out shots and when you're sitting there off the dribble be thinking about it," Izzo said. "And then we adjusted by cutting him, and he got some layups off those backdoor plays. What was nice was to see him come full circle because it is hard when somebody's backing off you if you're not ready for it."
Izzo compared it to shooting a free throw with an empty lane after a technical foul.
"It's a little bit harder," Izzo said. "He'll be ready for it if somebody else wants to try it. To step up at the end and hit the big shots shows you a little bit about his toughness. I think he's mentally and physically very tough."
He better be. The spotlight is going to remain on him, with even more intensity, when the Spartans face Louisville's full-court pressure defense, "which will press us right off the floor," Izzo said, if Appling doesn't play well.
"I told him before the game, you play well Keith (and) you're going to keep getting better," Izzo said. "You're the leader of the team. You're the quarterback of the team that's a No. 1 seed, and if you do, when you get to the press conference, they're going to ask you questions. Today, the first four or five questions were for him.
"I just wanted to prove to him I'm right again."
Green continues to prove he's unstoppable anywhere on the court and Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne have become a bona fide one-two punch inside. If Appling can continue to command respect as an outside threat, he'll not only draw defenses away from the post, but he'll re-open the lane to one of his most effective weapons, the dribble-drive.
The pieces just keep falling into place for Michigan State.