By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Normally one of the top scorers on his team, Michigan State guard Keith Appling did not crack double digits in five of the team’s final six games. Before that unimpressive stretch, Appling missed three games for a banged-up wrist, and it has been a battle for him to get back into a rhythm on a team that has seen plenty of turmoil.
Injury and adjustment issues aside, with the Big Ten tournament imminent and the first round of the NCAA tournament soon after, the Spartans need Appling more than ever.
“The struggles of not having a guy down the stretch right now is one of our big concerns this week that we’ve got to work on,” Izzo told reporters Tuesday. “Earlier in the year it was Appling every time, ball screens, doing things, made great decisions, was leading the Big Ten by far in assists, and as the injuries packed up for him, it’s been a little bit tough.”
In the last six games, Michigan State is 2-4, having dropped games to Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State. Of those opponents, only Michigan ranks in the Top 25.
“I asked my team, ‘Who is our go-to guy?’ Nobody could really give me a good answer,” Izzo said. “If I asked my staff, I’m not sure we could because it was Keith, and when he got hurt … it was Gary [Harris] for a while, then it was AP [Adreian Payne]. We just kind of moved around, so that’s one thing we’re trying to shore up.”
Appling had scored in double digits in 17 of 22 games in which he played before missing games for the wrist problem. In seven of those games, he scored 20 or more. How fully Appling can return to that form remains a major factor in the March fortunes of the Spartans. Izzo said Appling needs to shake the lingering doubts about his abilities and recapture the physical nature of his game.
“Keith’s got to get back to getting in the paint,” Izzo said. “He’s got to get back into driving and doing some things that maybe subconsciously you don’t do with the wrist because you don’t want to get hurt, you don’t do because you’re not shooting well from the free throw line … We have to get him back into aggressive mode where he’s doing it.
“I have confidence he can do it,” Izzo added. “It’s been hard on Keith. His bubble’s been busted a little bit when you go from a player that we all talked about as a Player of the Year candidate to not making the team. It’s hard. It’s not anybody’s fault … It’s just a situation that happened to him, so we’re trying to make sure his head’s right … and now his confidence gets back. I still think he’s the guy that I’m going to go to that’s going to have the ball in his hands.”
All season Michigan State has dealt with injuries – to Appling, to Harris, to Payne, to Branden Dawson, to Travis Trice – and has had to adjust to playing without those guys and then readjust to playing with them when they return. With so much movement within the lineup, Izzo is more thankful than ever for the Big Ten tournament.
“The tournament is going to be big for us,” Izzo said. “Most years it’s not. I think it’s big that we get to play some games. This team needs to keep practicing and playing together … We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to bring back some of the magic that we had early in the year when we had everybody playing together. I still think this team can accomplish a lot of great things.”
Michigan State is widely viewed as having underachieved this season, even though the reasons seem mostly ones out of its control, but Izzo still seems to believe the Spartans (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten) are among the best in the country.
“I’m not going to sit here and apologize when Duke’s 23-7, Kansas 23-8, Michigan’s 23-7,” Izzo said. “We’re off by a little bit, but we’re not out of whack. Is there any question in my mind that if this team would have played together our record would have been different? No question in mind … The only thing I can do is say to myself, ‘I know this team has done that before. I don’t need them to do things they haven’t done.'”
Saddled with sky-high expectations entering this year, Michigan State has looked relatively pedestrian throughout the season, getting swept by Michigan (albeit a strong Wolverines team ranked eighth in the nation), failing to capture the Big Ten regular season title and losing to a number of unranked opponents. For the Spartans to get back on the right track, solid performance in the conference tournament will be essential.
“This’ll be my most important Big Ten tournament,” Izzo said. “It’s where they are in their getting our rhythm back. It’s where we are at this point in time … I do think there’s years where it means more than other years.
“I don’t think any tournament could mean more to Michigan State than this one,” Izzo added. “This one’s bigger because we need to play games, we need to keep playing together, and if we can put the whole package together, we have just as a good a shot at winning it as anybody.”