Keith Appling went his entire Michigan State career without missing a game until Thursday. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — A week or two ago after one of Michigan State’s typical intense practices, I joked with Keith Appling he was walking around like an old man, resembling this 40-year-old when he gets out of bed in the morning more than the starting point guard of the No. 9 team in the nation.
Appling laughed, shaking his head. He understands as well as anyone what this season has been like for him physically. While teammates have dropped like flies around him, a trend that began before a game was even played, Appling has been the constant.
Before Thursday’s game against Penn State, Appling had played in 129 straight games, not missing a single one since the opener of his freshman season in 2010-11.
But while Appling has remained in the lineup while others have had to sit, he hasn’t been able to avoid injuries. He hurt his hip early in the season and in the Big Ten opener against Penn State on New Year’s Eve, he crashed to the ground on his right wrist.
Both injuries have bothered him since, but the wrist injury has only gotten worse, aggravated by the fact Appling often hits the floor on drives to the basket. It finally caught up with him Thursday and he was forced to sit on the Michigan State bench wearing a sweatsuit.
Give it a rest
Appling has routinely said he will not use injuries as an excuse, and that’s admirable. But one look at his shooting numbers and it became painfully obvious he needed to take a break. His free-throw shooting has suffered dramatically in the last six games, going just 19-for-33, while he has made only four 3-pointers in 21 tries.
Whether Appling plays Sunday against Wisconsin remains to be seen. Coach Tom Izzo wouldn’t put a percentage on it but didn’t sound optimistic.
But, as Izzo said early this week, there is no tougher player on the team than Appling.
Odds are, he will be driving Izzo crazy to put him in the game and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Izzo was cautious with Adreian Payne and held him out seven games with a sprained right foot.
It was all in an effort to have the Spartans healthy for March. If a game or two slipped away in January or February, so be it. This team is built for a tournament run, and that continues to be its focus.
And it has been playing out in Michigan State’s favor for the most part. Payne might be back in the starting lineup in Wisconsin while Branden Dawson (broken hand) could be ahead of schedule and return before the end of the month.
Gary Harris finally has an ankle that is 100 percent and Travis Trice appears to be back in shape after missing a stretch with the flu. Add to that the fact forward Matt Costello is coming into his own after missing four games with mononucleosis and redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski is learning to stay out of Izzo’s doghouse and everything is falling into place.
That is, unless, Appling’s injury lingers.
The Spartans managed to go 5-2 in Payne’s absence and have been able to overcome the other losses throughout the season. But missing Appling for any extended period would be far tougher to handle.
Appling will never have the best numbers, but it’s hard to argue his value to this team. The Spartans were impressive with Appling on the bench Thursday, but to expect that consistently would be foolish.
Quite simply, Appling is the player that makes this team go. Payne and Harris are the stars and Dawson will be a spark when he comes back. But it’s Appling that will be needed if Michigan State intends to reach its Final Four goal.
He has proven he can play through pain; after all, he’s done it nearly the entire season. And he has truly grown tired of the subject, saying more than once this season that blaming any struggles on an injury is a cop-out.
But he and the Spartans also understand what he means to the team’s success.
He walks around like an old man these days, but that old man is the difference between a magical March and another early trip home.