There’s something about stumbling out of the gates and playing possum in the non-conference that Tom Izzo’s teams have come to embrace.
It seemed the Spartans were off to their usual chicanery again this season—unlikely losers in the season opener to Connecticut in Germany—until Keith Appling took it upon himself to squelch those who had already written off his team.
Appling owned the final two minutes of Michigan State’s 67-64 win over Kansas in the early game of the Champions Classic double-dip, delivering a victory no less surprising than Sparty’s 66-62 loss to the Huskies at the Armed Forces Classic. Appling drained a gut-check 3-pointer to extend a one-point lead to four with 1:38 to play; drew a foul on the ensuing possession which wasn’t called; and then, after the Jayhawks cut the lead back to one, took preseason defensive player of the year Jeff Withey off the dribble and finished on a crazy up-and-under with the shot clock winding down.
It’s one of those sequences reserved for the who’s who of college basketball. And after shaking off a subpar debut against UConn, Appling has proven he should be a part of that elite company.
Appling wasn’t the only Spartan to deliver on the simulated Final Four stage Tuesday night. Branden Dawson, despite committing five of the team’s all-too-many 15 turnovers, quietly delivered a strong performance. Heralded freshman Gary Harris shined bright in Atlanta, a key early development for a team that plans to return to the Georgia Dome in early April and will rely on the young 2-guard to get there.
But as much as the stage belonged to Seth Curry in the nightcap, the undercard at the Champions Classic was all about the junior guard from Detroit.
Michigan State sorely felt the absence of point guard Travis Trice, who missed Tuesday’s game because of a concussion [and broken nose]. The team’s ball reversal was out of sync all night, Kansas’s ball pressure made it difficult to get off open looks from the perimeter and the team, lacking a true, starting-caliber point, was turnover-prone, especially in the first half.
Freshman Denzel Valentine was a huge boon off the bench, flashing the passing skills and court recognition that has Izzo calling him the best pure point on the team. But Valentine himself couldn’t allay concerns about the lack of a go-to scorer on the Spartans.
That’s when Appling said enough is enough.
When State needed a basket, needed someone to make a play offensively that Derrick Nix or Adreian Payne—as well as they commanded the interior for most of the night—simply couldn’t, Appling stepped up. Dawson was too quiet and Harris, as a freshman, was too bashful to take control, which left it up to the veteran presence in the backcourt.
Michigan State has the big bodies inside to make a Final Four. With a healthy Travis Trice, the requisite depth at guard is in place as well. But in addition to stark defensive improvements from Friday’s season opening loss, the Spartans, more than anything, needed a reliable go-to option on the perimeter to rise to the occasion when the stakes are the highest.
He stood up proud and tall Tuesday night. At the second annual Champions Classic, Keith Appling stared his critics right in the eyes and proved why Michigan State is a worthy participant of this event. If the Spartans are to return to Atlanta in five months for a postseason installment of the Champions Classic, No. 11’s primetime ability will be the reason why.