SHARP: MSU needs Appling to step up


MCT News Service

This loss will fester. And it should.

If it’s possible to choke away a game against the No. 1 team in the country, Michigan State did it Tuesday night. As poorly as the Spartans played, they nonetheless had their battle against Indiana under their control in the final two minutes. So confident were some at the Breslin Center of impending triumph that arena security warned media at courtside of the possibility of the Izzone student section storming the floor at the final buzzer in celebration.

“We just didn’t make the plays at the end that we needed to make,” junior guard Keith Appling said after the Hoosiers’ 72-68 victory. He kept his head down, barely looking at his inquisitors. Perhaps he feared the camera that was locked in on him doubled as a mirror, revealing the true reason for the Spartans’ inability to beat another top-ranked team.

Appling played awful against the Hoosiers — for the second time this season.

He missed seven of eight field goal attempts and bricked three free throws, including a crucial front end of a one-and-one with the Spartans leading, 67-66, with 1:09 left. Appling also committed a game-high four turnovers.

“I don’t believe in pressure,” he said. “Sometimes, there are going to be games like this. You just can’t let one loss become two losses. You’ve got to give (Indiana) credit. They made the plays when they had to down the stretch.”

Everybody loves making excuses for college players when they don’t perform to reasonable expectations. They’re men when they soar to great heights, but magically revert back to childhood when they stumble. But Appling needs important self-reflection now. Indiana is the best team the Spartans have faced and likely will face — short of an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament.

And both times against the Hoosiers, he vanished. He’s the leader. He sets the tone. The Spartans looked frantic and impatient offensively frequently, hurriedly launching 3-point attempts rather than methodically working the ball down low to Derrick Nix.

They resembled their panicked point guard.

“I really don’t know why … to be honest with you,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I felt bad for him. He just wasn’t himself. I think you get to the point where he is a very good defender and he kind of lets his offense dictate his defense — and that was the biggest problem early.”

Izzo also thought some distractions hurt his team, but that’s not a legitimate excuse. This program is used to the bright lights of national games. The coach is trying to protect his players, but deep down, Izzo knows that any team is only as good as its leaders. And if Appling can’t handle the pressure of playing well against the excellent competition they’ll face in a long tournament run, the Spartans definitely will have problems.

These clearly are the best teams in the Big Ten, but there’s a sizable gap between first place and second place.

The Hoosiers have two NBA lottery picks this summer if center Cody Zeller and guard/forward Victor Oladipo give up their remaining eligibility and enter the draft. Oladipo should be the favorite for Big Ten player of the year considering how he has performed in the biggest games — with the right play at the right time, whether it was a steal or catching a defender napping on the inbounds play and bouncing the ball off his back for an easy layup.

We’re approaching the time on the calendar where the true money players step up.

And Appling couldn’t make change for a nickel.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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