Trey Burke steals the ball from Keith Appling in the final minute of last season's game at the Crisler Center. Burke took it downcourt for a dunk, and Michigan prevailed, 58-57. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
East Lansing – Keith Appling insists he doesn’t think about his last trip to the Crisler Center.
At least, not that much.
It was nearly a year ago when the Michigan State junior dribbled the ball near half-court, the game tied against Michigan in the final minute of one of the more hotly-contested editions of the rivalry.
In one split second, however, what looked like could be Appling’s first win in Ann Arbor disappeared. Michigan’s Trey Burke reached around Appling, swiped the ball and went in for a dunk to give the Wolverines a two-point lead. Derrick Nix cut the lead to one by splitting a pair of free throws. And after Mitch McGary missed the front end of a one-and-one with less than five seconds to play, the Spartans failed to get off a shot in the final possession.
The Wolverines avenged a blowout loss in East Lansing just weeks earlier and Appling was left to deal with what might have been.
But as he and No. 13 Michigan State are set to face No. 20 Michigan on Sunday, Appling focuses on the fact he can’t dwell on what has happened in the past.
“I can’t change what happened last year,” Appling said. “The only thing I can do is let that be motivation to help me become a better player. I really don’t think about it that much, but I’m pretty sure the fans are going to remind me of it. But that’s what I have my teammates for.”
There is little doubt Appling will hear it from the Michigan faithful, but that would happen regardless. The rivalry is intense, even more so now that both teams sit at the top of the Big Ten standings and the winner will be in prime position to win the conference championship.
But for Appling and Adreian Payne, it is even bigger than that. The seniors have never won a game at Crisler, losing each of the last two by one point.
Predictably, Appling downplayed that angle, instead focusing on the bigger picture.
“It would be great (to win there),” Appling said. “It’s something that I haven’t accomplished, and that we haven’t accomplished as a team. It’s another game and we have championship goals as a team, and they’re just a team that’s in the way of us accomplishing one of our goals.”
Appling is slowly working his way back from a wrist injury that kept him out three games, but the Spartans will be without forward Branden Dawson, who will miss his ninth game with a broken right hand. He is expected to return March 1 against Illinois.
Payne, however, is now beginning find his groove after missing seven games with a sprained right foot, including the first game against Michigan – an 80-75 victory for the Wolverines.
“I wanted to be out there playing and couldn’t,” Payne said of what was going through his mind as he watched that game. “Just seeing my teammates out there playing as hard as they can. To see Michigan win the game hurt. We don’t lose at home very often and it just eats at you every day.”
Actually, Michigan State has been better on the road this season, losing just once while falling three times at home. It will be vital the Spartans bring the same approach for this road game, something that can be difficult considering the circumstances.
“I think it cranks it up even more,” said Ohio native Travis Trice, who admitted he had no idea of the rivalry’s intensity as a freshman two years ago. “You’re playing on the road and it’s for a Big Ten championship. I think the focus is going to be cranked up a couple of notches.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo agreed, saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
And even though Appling admits to wanting to win for personal reasons, it all comes back to the team.
“It means a lot,” he said, “but at the same time we have an opportunity to put ourselves in the race for the Big Ten championship. That’s one thing we keep in the back of our mind heading into Sunday’s game. We all know what the game means to the program, but at the same time we still have goals as a team that we want to accomplish.”
And for Appling, that includes finally leaving Ann Arbor with a win.
Michigan State at Michigan
Tipoff: Noon Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 13 MSU 22-5, 11-3 Big Ten; No. 20 Michigan 18-7, 10-3
Notable: After the game against Michigan, the Spartans close the Big Ten regular season with two at home (Illinois and Iowa) and one on the road (Ohio State). This is the sixth straight game in the rivalry in which both teams are ranked in the top 25.