By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – As No. 3 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State battle in East Lansing for Big Ten supremacy, their senior point guards will get their fair share of attention – and maybe more.
For the Buckeyes, the main man is Aaron Craft, averaging 9.3 points, 2.5 steals and 4.9 assists per game. For the Spartans, the veteran floor general is Keith Appling, averaging 15.6 points, one steal and 4.6 assists per game.
Ohio State is undefeated (15-0, 2-0), and they have vanquished 13 of their 15 opponents thus far by double digits. Michigan State (13-1, 2-0) played perennial contenders Kentucky and North Carolina early and have also had only a few games come down to the wire.
More likely than not, this game will. Giving both teams one of their best tests so far, Tuesday’s game is about more than just Craft and Appling.
For his part, Spartans coach Tom Izzo surely does not want Appling viewing the game through that prism.
“Keith’s got to play his game,” Izzo said. “They’re two different kinds of players, both very good defensively, but Keith can do some other things, scoring the ball, that Craft can’t do, and Craft can do some things that Keith can’t do as well, so you’ve got to worry about yourself and how you play and not get caught up in the circus that is sometimes around rivalry games or games that are big games with rivalry players.”
Appling and Craft were both selected Second Team All-Big Ten last season. Craft also made the All-Defensive Team for the second straight year.
While different kinds of players, Appling and Craft have proved similarly vital to their teams.
While Craft does not score as much as Appling, Izzo likes what Craft does in terms of playing to his own strengths.
“I admire that he’s figured out what he can’t do,” Izzo said. “I think so many times now in this day and age, we’re worried about what we could be instead of what we are, and we don’t embrace what we are. We’re always trying to be something else – we’re trying to be a year older, we’re trying to get somewhere quicker.
“What he’s done is embraced what he is – a great defender who runs a team, and that’s what he does,” Izzo continued. “He’s improved his shooting each year, but he’s not a kid that’s going to come out and be trying to drain any 3s or anything like that, improved his ball handling every year, but he doesn’t try to overhandle it. He plays within himself and I think he tries to be nobody but what he is. That’s a pretty good art in this day and age.”
Craft will be responsible for trying to shut down Appling, who has scored 20 points or more on five occasions this season and dished five or more assists on six. Ohio State coach Thad Matta respects Appling’s ability.
“Keith is obviously a four-year veteran in the Big Ten,” Matta said. “I don’t know there’s a way to crawl into his head, if you will. I think you’ve got to be as sound as you can, and you know he’s going to make great plays. It’s trying to disrupt his rhythm if that’s possible. I think from the standpoint of the guys are them, he makes them better, but they make him better, and I think that’s the sign of a great basketball team and a great point guard.”
Regardless of whose team emerges victorious, the matchup of Appling and Craft should be fun to watch.