March 27, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
NEW YORK – Winning will cure all of Keith Appling’s ills, which have been plentiful and profound.
It starts with the sore and stiff right wrist that robbed him of being the point guard he was for Michigan State during the first half of the season, caused him to forfeit significant individual goals through the middle quarter and has turned him into the player the Spartans need him to be during this critical final fourth.
Appling has come to terms with his scoring average dropping by nearly six points since his last 20-point game on Jan. 11 at Minnesota, to not being named first-, second- or even third-team All-Big Ten by either the media or coaches panels and to falling out of contention for conference Player of the Year honors, All-American distinction, Wooden Award, Oscar Robertson Trophy and Naismith Award consideration because in the end, it really only comes down to one thing.
“As we play more and more games, I’m starting to feel better and better,” Appling said. “Honestly, if I shoot the ball 20 times and we lose what difference does that make? I couldn’t care less about how many shots I get as long as we win and advance in the tournament.
“That’s the main goal.”
Michigan State swept through the Big Ten Tournament en route to the championship and beat Delaware and Harvard to open the NCAA Tournament in large part because of how Appling has quietly, from a statistical standpoint, and effectively run the team.
And his 5.8 points, 3.8 assists and 1.8 turnovers in five postseason games will suit the Spartans just fine if he leads them to a Sweet 16 victory against No. 1 seed Virginia Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Appling has gone from a true quadruple-threat point guard who could create his own shot from any range, break down defenses with dribble penetration, set up scorers as an assist man and defend on the other end to becoming the consummate game manager.
“You’ve got to give him a tremendous amount of credit,” said assistant coach Mike Garland. “I mean, how many people can do that – change who you are and then redefine yourself within months and become a different type of player?
“Your hat has to go off to him for the kind of success we’re enjoying with him doing that. In my mind, in the last five games, his floor game has been off the chart. He’s done a tremendous job doing what he has to do to keep us winning.”
Recovering from the balky wrist, which head coach Tom Izzo said is 95 percent healed, was only part of Appling’s ordeal. The process required Appling to subdue the ego all great competitors have for the good of the team.
“I think it was tough on him, it hurt,” Garland said. “C’mon, if that hand had not got hurt, he was going to be the (Big Ten) MVP. They were talking about him being the Wooden Award winner. It was all right there, man. It’s just unfortunate, but that’s sports.
“He had to change and sacrifice for the team to be successful. A lot of guys wouldn’t have done that. A lot of guys would have kept on trying to do what they were doing before the injury. He made the ultimate choice to do what was best for this team, and in turn, it’s been great because it’s made us that much better.”
Appling’s signature, carefree smile disappeared during three games he sat out to rest his wrist. After he returned, it was like watching someone punch the accelerator and getting no response as MSU lost four of the last six regular season games.
The feathery shooting touch, that allowed him to make 15 of 16 free throws against the Golden Gophers, degenerated into a case of the shanks that sent foul shots wide to the left. He could barely get the ball to the rim from 3-point range.
“After I got hurt, I just felt like a completely different player and it was hard for me to feel comfortable on the floor,” he said. “It was almost like mind-blowing to be so far up here to being all the way to the bottom. I kind of caught myself lying in bed at night, saying, ‘Wow, is this really happening to me?’
“There’s always going to be adversity you have to overcome and I guess that was the adversity I had to overcome. Now we’re in a position to advance in the tournament and potentially win the national championship. As far as personal goals, I don’t really focus too much on those within the season. I feel like if I do my job and run the team, and we’re winning, things will come.”
Like the smile, which is back with all its wattage, Appling appears fully adjusted to his new skin.
“I’m a lot more comfortable out there than I was when I first got back,” he said. “I feel like I did a pretty good job of transforming myself into more of a pure point guard. I’m completely happy about my career at Michigan State, but there are still some goals I’d like to accomplish and we have the opportunity to do so.”
What Appling means to the team was demonstrated in the second half of the game against Harvard in Spokane, Wash. The more the Crimson ate away at MSU’s 16-point lead until it was all gone, the more conspicuous he was by his foul-induced absence.
“My heart almost jumped out my chest when I was sitting on the bench after they made their run after I picked up my fourth foul,” he said. “I was definitely a little paranoid, but I feel like my teammates did a great job of staying together and holding them off until we could come out with the victory.”
The last time MSU played in the Garden, Appling said, “I didn’t feel very good, but I still played and we came up short.” The Spartans fell to NIT-bound Georgetown, 64-60, in a mid-season nonconference game on Feb. 1.
This time, he’ll be engaged in a formidable duel with Virginia point guard London Perrantes, who rises to the occasion against top competition, with the backdrop of what some seasoned observers, like Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, are portraying as a national championship-level game, on the world’s biggest basketball stage.
One thing hasn’t changed -- Appling is still his old unflappable self.
“I don’t really get into one-on-one matchups,” Appling said. “Basketball is a team sport. It’s four other players on the court with me and at the end of the day; it’s going to come down to who is the better team and who is the tougher team.
“Hopefully, our team is, and we just have to go from there.”
That said, Garland doesn’t hide what he believes the track MSU would be on if the Appling, who creased No. 1 Kentucky for 22 points and eight assists and torched Oklahoma for 27 points was going up against the Cavaliers
“We have scorers,” Garland said. “Everybody knows that. We have people who can pick up his scoring, and they have, but because of the way he’s playing. And I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I still feel before this thing is all said and done, his offense is going to come back a little bit.
“College basketball is just lucky he’s not who he was. We’re already playing at another level, but the level we’d be playing if Keith was playing like he was in the fall?
“It’s scary; it’s hard to even imagine.”