Keith Appling (11) and teammates greet fans to celebrate after the game. (Photo by: Jon Coffey/isportsweb.com)
Anyone who watches basketball on a regular basis should know that a point guard makes or breaks a team. The point guard doesn’t even have to be a star— if a coach or management can put together a quality team, they won’t really play to the fullest of their potential until capped off by a point guard that’s a good team leader and a solid decision-maker.
Michigan State has a storied history of legendary point guards. Magic Johnson. Scott Skiles. Mateen Cleaves.
Keith Appling’s name was supposed to be up in the rafters with them.
Coming into MSU, the young combo guard out of Detroit’s Pershing High School was one of the most highly-touted players in recent history. He burst onto the scene after holding his own in the McDonald’s High School All-American Game with Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, Tristian Thompson and Jared Sullinger — and cemented his high school basketball legacy after scoring a ridiculous 49 points in the Michigan State Championship game. When he decided to play for Tom Izzo, MSU’s coach promised him the same thing he’d promised every recruit since 1999— he promised a Final Four berth if Appling were to stay until his senior year. All of Izzo’s senior classes had made at least one Final Four.
The Kalin-Lucas-heir-apparent shooting-guard-turned-point guard was known for his big play ability and prolific shooting— all he needed was to perfect his defense and passing and he’d be one of the best point guards in college basketball. The potential was there.
Appling’s freshman campaign was viewed in the same way a lot of people viewed his high school days. Despite the small amount of playing time, the general consensus was that Appling was athletic, a great shooter and had the potential to be a great point guard if he could shy away from the shooting guard mentality. He averaged 22 minutes, 11 points and 4.5 assists per game. The year was more of a showcase for young Appling; it wasn’t necessarily part of his Spartan legacy, although it didn’t help that Michigan State was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The real journey began in the fall of 2011, when the sophomore Appling grabbed the starting point guard job. His first game? On an aircraft carrier against #1 North Carolina. Predictably, the Spartans lost. Appling shot 28.6% from the field. Needless to say, it was not a great way to start the season for Appling. While he had a decidedly underwhelming 2011-2012 season when it was all said and done— an underwhelming 25% from three point range coupled with 2.3 turnovers per game— he was never under that much criticism, since the leader of the team was still clearly senior Draymond Green. The team lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16; at that point, it was the deepest an Appling team had made it in the tournament.
Coming into his junior season, Appling garnered a lot of criticism. There were still questions about his ability to step up as a leader in the absence of Draymond Green, and now there was additional questioning as to how good his shooting really was, after a very disappointing sophomore season, shooting-wise. During his junior season, he stepped up and was even named captain midway through the season. But his stats went down across the board, with the exception of his three point shooting, which marginally increased to 32%— still very subpar. MSU lost in the Sweet 16 to Duke. Although it was Appling’s second Sweet 16, he still couldn’t help his team make the next step.
Coming into his senior season, Appling (along with Adreian Payne) was the veteran and team leader. He had become one of Izzo’s favorite players because of his work ethic and apparent off-season improvement. While facing a lot of criticism, the beginning of the season surely seemed to finally swing in Appling’s favor. For the first seven games of the season, Appling was shooting 58.6% from the field, 52.2% from three-point range and averaging 16.9 points per game.
But on December 4th in a loss against North Carolina, Appling hurt his wrist. While it didn’t seem like it was too major at the time, it would end up crippling his entire senior campaign. His numbers would continue to decrease throughout the beginning of the Big Ten season. The injury worsened and Appling had to sit out for three games (2 wins, 1 loss).
When he came back, both Appling and the coaches said he was healthy. The numbers said differently. In the 13 games he played after he returned from his lingering injury, Appling shot 42% from the field, 13.3% from three-point range and averaged 4.6 points per game. In the NCAA tournament, he shot 25% from the field, didn’t make a three and averaged two points per game. If you look at Appling’s season stats from a glance, they look like a general improvement. His shooting percentage went skyrocketing up to 45.2% and his assist numbers went up to 4.5 per game. Unfortunately, this season was another general disappointment for Appling at a closer look. After his injury, his numbers went down to probably the worst numbers of his career. Unfortunately, going into the tournament, there was almost a sense in the air that the NCAA Tournament was going to either make or break Appling’s legacy.
In the tournament, Appling was an offensive disaster. As noted earlier, he shot 25% from the field and averaged two points per game. On defense, he wasn’t great either. The opposing team’s point guards in the tournament averaged 21 points. The saving grace, though, was that Appling was doing a good job keeping up MSU’s tempo and being a generally good leader. In the MSU-UConn Elite 8 game, it all fell apart.
From the get-go, Appling wasn’t doing a great job with running the offense. He was doing his usual not-scoring, but he also couldn’t control the tempo. The Spartans were jacking up long shots early in the shot clock all game, and the only reason they had a 9-point lead in the second half was because they started making those shots. At this point, the only thing that would save Appling’s season — and possibly his MSU legacy — would be a Final Four berth, carrying on Izzo’s tradition.
Towards the end of the game, Michigan State crawled their way back into the game. With the score at 53-51 in favor of Connecticut with 40 seconds left, Tom Izzo showed the faith he still had in Appling by inserting him in for Trice to be the one in isolation guarding Shabazz Napier. All MSU needed to do was stop Connecticut from scoring. Predictably, Napier pulled up to take a jumper to seal the game. In the motion of his three point shot from the top of the key, though, Appling — making up for lost ground — swiped Napier’s shoulder, disrupting the course of the shot and getting hit with a foul. Napier hit all three free throws, and the game was effectively over along with the storied MSU career of Keith Appling.
So, will that be the defining play of Keith Appling’s MSU legacy?
Unfortunately, it probably will be.
People probably won’t remember Appling’s clutch heroics against Kansas in 2012, or his monster dunk in the Big Ten Tournament in 2013. They probably won’t remember Appling’s fierce battles in 2013 with Trey Burke. Instead of being remembered for what he could have been — a star point guard, a big-time shooter and a Michigan State legend who led his team to several Final Fours — he’ll be remembered for what he was… an injury-ridden player who never fixed his imperfections and never carried his team past the Elite 8.
We will, of course, try to have a positive outlook on how he’ll be remembered, but its human nature to tend to remember the negatives. While Appling’s long MSU career was filled with positives, it was also riddled with negatives. And even after a week of reflection, it seems that will be his Spartan legacy.
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