Keith Appling is in rare company.
Being a point guard in the MSU basketball program, the names of his predecessors read like a Mount Rushmore of achievement, forever carved into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
Names such as Scott Skiles, Steve Smith, Mateen Cleaves and Earvin “Magic” Johnson come to mind by carrying the torch of basketball tradition prominent during the years of Jud Heathcote and championed by the indomitable Tom Izzo.
Heading into his junior season, Appling has the opportunity to etch his name among the greats while making a run at a national championship for the Spartans. And for Appling, the journey starts in the gym.
“I feel like (there’s) still more room for improvement because, in practice, when I know how much I’ve been working on my shot and I miss a couple shots, that upsets me a little bit,” Appling said. “At the end of the day, I know how hard I’ve worked on my shot, and shots are going to fall. I mean, I would say I’m pleased, but there’s still room for improvement.”
A graduate of Detroit’s Pershing High School— the same school attended by Smith, former MSU star Ralph Simpson and senior center Derrick Nix — Appling established himself as a strong presence during his sophomore season. The only Spartan to start all 37 games during 2011-12, Appling averaged 11.4 points per game, 2.8 rebounds and a team-leading 3.9 assists.
As a connoisseur of talented point guards, Izzo likes what he’s seeing of Appling early in the season. Having coached talented floor generals in the past such as Cleaves, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas, Izzo said Appling is progressing into being another prime-time player on the big stage.
“I’ve been really pleased with Keith,” Izzo said. “He made some passes (in practice) that I had to stop practice and say, ‘You would have never done that a year ago.’ I don’t think it’s because he couldn’t, I just think his mentality has changed some.
“He’s still a dog on defense, and he’s pushing the ball. He can play a lot of minutes — he can go forever. Knock on wood that it continues, but it’d be a classic example of a guy who’s matured in his position and really bought into what he needs to do to make this team a better team.”
Yet Appling isn’t the only guard making strides this season.
The guard contingent, which features sophomores Russell Byrd, Brandan Kearney and Travis Trice along with freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine, has potential to be one of the deepest in the Big Ten.
As that applies to Appling, Trice said the competition in addition to the natural camaraderie ultimately will serve to strengthen the Spartans at a critical position.
“As a team, we have a great thing going for shooting,” Trice said at the team’s media day in October. “We have guys like Russell Byrd and Keenan Wetzel who can shoot and guys who are improving their shooting like Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Brandan Kearney. As a whole, we are pretty solid all the way around.”
By the end of the season, Appling has aspirations to see his team in the 2013 Final Four, which takes place April 6-8 in Atlanta.
But if the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Detroit native hopes to end the season on the brightest stage in college basketball, the journey, like many others for Appling, starts in the gym.
“It’s tough between class and practice and tutors and things like that, but, at the end of the day, that’s what being a student-athlete is all about,” he said. “You’ve got to find time to work on your game if you want to accomplish certain goals.”
The No. 14 Spartans kick off the regular season against Connecticut at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — the first of a two-game road trip to start the year.