AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – When Keith Appling plays well, Michigan State usually wins.
The same is true for Joe Jackson and Memphis.
On Saturday, one of the junior point guards and his team will advance to the round of 16 when the third-seeded Spartans (26-8) face the sixth-seeded Tigers (31-4).
“Whenever you got two good quarterbacks, it’s pivotal,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Friday. “Ours is playing better and theirs has been playing well and they’re both kind of alike. They’re both jitterbug guards, both the same size. They can really push the ball, use ball screens. … Him and Joe ought to be worth the price of admission.”
The leading scorers for both teams are coming off good games.
Appling had 15 points, making three 3-pointers, as Michigan State opened the NCAA tournament with a 65-54 win over Valparaiso. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Detroit native made a season-high four 3-pointers and scored 16 points in his previous game, extending his streak of success that followed a three-game slump that coincided with a season-high, three-game Spartans’ losing streak.
Appling scored six, three and nine points in consecutive setbacks against Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan – making only one shot against both the Hoosiers and Buckeyes – before bouncing back with a 19-point performance in a win over Wisconsin in his first of five games with at least 13 points.
After starting ahead of Appling on USA Basketball’s under-19 team two years ago, Jackson doesn’t seem worried about how he’ll fare.
“I played against him before and none of the guys on the court are NBA All-Stars,” Jackson said. “He laces his shoes up just like me.”
The 6-1, 171-pound Jackson scored 14, connecting on a pair of shots beyond the arc, and had seven assists and six rebounds to help Memphis hold off Saint Mary’s for a two-point win to set up the intriguing matchup with Appling.
Jackson scored 22 points in his previous game, leading his hometown Tigers to a win over Southern Miss and their third consecutive Conference USA tournament title. He was held scoreless in the conference semifinals, a rare poor performance since being benched in the Bahamas during a nonconference tournament in which Memphis coach Josh Pastner delivered a message.
“I believe that the best motivating factor is the bench,” Pastner said. “I believe in production, and if someone’s not getting the job done, the best way to do it to make a point is instead of screaming and yelling at them is to sit them.
“Joe didn’t play well in the Bahamas his first two games, so I sat him. That third game when we played Northern Iowa, he was terrific. And from that point to where we are now, he’s been absolutely awesome.”
Jackson said he learned a valuable lesson after getting over his disappointment about playing just 7 minutes and 20 minutes in losses to Minnesota and VCU back in November.
“Work hard, just bounce back and get your confidence back up,” he said.
The Spartans ooze with confidence during the NCAA tournament in large part because Izzo is one of the best coaches in the country during this time of year. He has 38 NCAA tournament victories and is 17-3 in the second game at an NCAA tournament site.
Pastner says Izzo, who he once tried to work for as an assistant, should already be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Yet the Tigers don’t sound as if they’ll be satisfied with a brief appearance in college basketball’s showcase.
“We’re a great basketball team,” Memphis’ high-flying forward D.J. Stephens said. “We didn’t expect just to win that one game and then pack it up and go home. We definitely want to try to win a national championship and we want to win as many games as we possibly can. We’re happy we won it, but we’re not done with yet.”
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