Column: With Appling back in form, Spartans can go deep in NCAA tourney
The ball floated through the air, arching slowly, rotating slightly, before beginning to wobble, flatten out, and ultimately clang off the side of the rim.
Wobble! Clang! Off!
It had become an uncomfortably familiar result for Keith Appling in recent weeks as his 17th consecutive 3-pointer failed to fall during a frustrating month that saw him shoot 2-for-27 from beyond the arc.
But when an offensive rebound by guard Gary Harris gave the junior a second shot just seconds later, he didn’t hesitate to take it.
The Breslin Center crowd watched the next jumper take flight with eager anticipation, letting out an unusual noise in unison.
It wasn’t a groan or a cheer, but rather a plea — an attempt to collectively will the ball through the hoop.
They knew as well as anyone the struggles their star guard had been fighting through for the better part of a month.
One of their own had been criticized roundly for being consistently outplayed during a three-game losing streak, and as they watched the ball leave his hands, they knew he needed something to go right.
This one had to fall.
It did and the stadium erupted.
The shot gave MSU its largest lead of the first half and got Appling on a roll, as the No. 10 MSU men’s basketball team (23-7 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) pounded No. 22 Wisconsin (20-10, 11-6), 58-43 to stay in the hunt for the Big Ten title.
Appling went on to hit seven of his next nine shots before finishing with a game-high 19 points, the junior’s highest total in five weeks.
And as he made his way over to the bench to talk to his head coach late in Thursday night’s game, a familiar smile began to reemerge.
“I was just happy. I’m a happy person,” Appling said. “I was just happy to see a couple shots fall. I haven’t (seen) that in a couple games, so I felt good. I felt good.”
The smile was a constant throughout the first half of the season, when Appling regularly flashed it after knocking down clutch, late-game shots while playing like one of the best point guards in the country.
However the grin had recently been traded for images of sadness and frustration after being dominated by Ohio State’s Aaron Craft and Michigan’s Trey Burke as part of a three-game skid, lowlighted by Appling having his pocket picked by Burke for the game-winning basket in the rivalry game’s closing seconds.
And in these losses, a blunt reality has become clear: when Appling plays poorly, MSU is likely to lose.
In MSU’s four losses this calendar year, a number of players have had big games, ranging from Harris to centers Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix and it hasn’t made a difference.
Throughout this season, those same players have also had poor games, yet MSU has found a way to win.
The simple reality is this team’s success hinges on no singular player more than Appling.
He’s the floor general that runs the offense.
When he’s on the bench, the offense struggles to execute effective sets.
He’s the player that can be counted on with the ball in his hands in the game’s final, critical moments.
No one else has looked nearly as comfortable in that role.
He’s the man capable of carrying Tom Izzo to his seventh Final Four. Without him, making it past the Sweet 16 seems unlikely.
It’s a heavy burden that’s likely unfair, but nevertheless the reality, one he and Izzo both understand completely.
“The poor kid, he has struggled,” Izzo said. “There (are) not many times I actually feel good for a guy. I felt good for him (tonight). I was excited when I saw him smile. That sounds probably stupid, but it was the truth.”
On a cold, Thursday night, with the majority of the student population gone for spring break, it might sound stupid.
It won’t if Appling’s still smiling in April.
Josh Mansour is The State News’ men’s basketball reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org