Austin, Texas — Texas coach Rick Barnes said on Saturday that basketball can be a baffling game.
To which Tom Izzo and the Spartans likely would have responded, “No kidding.”
And Keith Appling was the epitome of that on Saturday.
The senior guard, who on so many nights has been the reason Michigan State has won, did a bit of disappearing act in No. 5 Michigan State’s 92-78 victory over Texas. He was just 2-for-11 from the field and finished with four points and two assists before fouling out.
But rallying to win on a night when Appling was a non-factor might just say as much about this team as anything else.
The Spartans came into the game a beaten team. Appling, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Travis Trice, Matt Costello — the list has been lengthy — were all dealing with various injuries, illnesses and issues over the past few weeks. And Texas was coming off an upset win over North Carolina It appeared to be spelling a potentially frustrating day for Michigan State, and it certainly was for Appling.
But instead of folding, even down seven points late in the first half, this team decided to keep fighting.
Payne was outstanding, scoring a career-best 33 points, while Harris scored 19 in his first action in three games and Trice, out on Tuesday, bounced back with 13 points.
After it was all said and done, Appling thanked his teammates for having his back.
“I just told them I appreciate the fact they held it together,” he said. “I struggled tremendously in the first half and the second half as well. I just commended them on the job they did, basically playing without me.”
To Izzo, that said as much about what the next few months might hold as anything.
“Listening to him after the game, thanking guys for picking him up,” Izzo said, “was maybe as big a part of this thing as the win.”
It proved that this Michigan State team truly is a team. Sure, there are plenty of outstanding parts, as was on display again on Saturday. And there is no doubt getting everyone back will be vital as Big Ten play looms.
But this trip has already played a large role, sparking a team that had been in a bit of a funk for most of the month.
“I think what you do when you go on the road is it galvanizes your team,” Izzo said. “We got down here Thursday night because we had to fly out early, which I wasn’t really happy about. But it turned out to be really good, because we got some team time and the team grew a bit.”
There were plenty of signs of that growth on Saturday. Of course, Payne was superb, but Harris shook off some early rust and was nearly perfect down the stretch from the line and Trice quickly got back in a rhythm from the perimeter.
And freshman Gavin Schilling played some of his most effective minutes all season.
“I can’t wait to get back full-go and healthy,” Izzo said, excited about what still lie ahead for his team. “As we get a rotation back and Costello comes back we will have a rotation instead of now where we’re just kind of throwing guys out there.”
Appling admitted, albeit begrudgingly, that the hip he injured against North Carolina is still a bit sore, but he refused to use it as an excuse.
“I feel like if I’m out there playing, I’ve got to play,” he said. “I might be banged up, but I can’t make excuses.”
He didn’t have to on this day because the rest of the Spartans showed why this team has a chance to be back in the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
“The sky’s the limit,” Appling said. “We’ve got a special group of guys and have the opportunity to achieve something special this year. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing and getting better at the same time.”
If that keeps happening, the only baffling thing will be is if this team isn’t playing on the final weekend of the season.