By: Jamie Samuelsen
Tom Izzo knows what to expect when it comes to his basketball team. They’ll play tough defense. They’ll rebound. They’ll play hard. And they’ll always be in the game. He doesn’t know however what to expect from junior guard Keith Appling.
John Beilein knows what to expect from his team. They’ll run and score. They’ll shoot threes. They’ll use the bench liberally. And they’ll run away and hide from a lot of their opponents. Though he doesn’t know what to expect from junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
Michigan has Trey Burke, as good as any player in the country. MSU has Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, two players who have improved as much as any duo in college basketball.
But both teams will end up advancing just as far as their X-factors allow them to advance. And the X-factors are Hardaway and Appling. Both are massive question marks heading into the NCAA Tournament. And both were on full display Sunday during Michigan’s 58-57 win at Crisler Center.
Hardaway was awful in the first meeting between these two teams shooting 1-11 from the floor and apologizing to fans after the game. He vowed to be better and technically he was, but not by much. He shot 3-for-12 from the field (0-for-3 from three-point range) and scored six points. He grabbed seven rebounds, which helped defray MSU’s advantage in the paint just a little bit. But Hardaway’s role on this team is a scorer (he’s second on the team at 14.9 per game.) And he’s also one of the primary three-point shooters (He’s made 53 this year, third on the team behind Nik Stauskas and Burke.) Hardaway is shooting 39% from three-point range this season. But in Michigan’s five losses, he’s just 8-for-32 (25%)
As for Appling, it remains one of the more troubling mysteries of this Spartan season. Earlier in the Big Ten campaign, he was playing like MSU’s most important/most valuable player. But he hasn’t shot above 30 percent in his last five games (MSU is 2-3 during that stretch). And he’s just 2-for-22 in three point attempts in those match-ups. Appling has never been known for his outside shooting, but he is second on the team behind Gary Harris in three pointers made, so he’s a factor. Appling did play better in the second half against Michigan. But any good feeling was erased when Trey Burke stripped him with a backbreaking steal in the final seconds. The cold hard fact is this – MSU has lost three games in a row to drop from the top of the Big Ten standings. Appling has scored 21 points combined in those three games.
How Hardaway and Appling go from here is anybody’s guess. I’d argue that not even Izzo or Beilein know for sure. But here’s one thing we know – if Michigan or Michigan State hope to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, both those players will have to raise their games.