Point guard Keith Appling was back in charge in the huddle as Michigan State beat Michigan for the Big Ten tournament championship. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — They’ve played games in 19 states and two continents. They’ve played on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean and an air base in Germany. They’ve played in football stadiums and in that old gym, Jenison Field House, across the street.
“We’ve played just about everywhere,” Keith Appling agreed, nodding.
But one place Appling and his running mate, Adreian Payne, haven’t been is where just about every senior has been with Michigan State’s basketball program in recent memory: The Final Four.
No four-year player with the Spartans during Tom Izzo’s 19-year tenure as coach has failed to reach at least one in his career. And while Izzo insists he’s not going to beat his two seniors over the head with that burden the way he might have with, say, Travis Walton in 2009, he also knows he doesn’t have to.
“Well, it better weigh on Appling and Payne’s minds,” Izzo said Monday as Michigan State headed to Spokane, Wash., where it begins another NCAA Tournament quest Thursday against Delaware. “It doesn’t weigh on mine as much. We’re going to try to do what we can do to keep a streak alive. But it’s the players that don’t get another chance.”
OK, so maybe he’s willing to drop a few not-so-subtle reminders. (“You don’t want to be part of the team that lost that,” he added.) But he’s not going to get carried away with it right now “because they’ve had enough pressure on their helmets to not have to be thinking about that, too. If it becomes a motivating factor as we move on, great. But I’m not throwing it at them. … We’ve got enough other things to take care of because of all the cards we’ve been dealt.”
He’s speaking about the pressure of expectations. (Las Vegas oddsmakers have Michigan State as a pre-Tournament favorite.) And about the injuries.
But I think he’s talking mostly about Appling, whose wrist injury suffered Dec. 4 all but swallowed up his senior season. In the span of two months, Appling went from a leading candidate for Big Ten player of the year and All-America consideration to a one-armed point guard who couldn’t shoot or think straight.
“That kid had his whole dreams ... and it’s like they were taken away,’ said Izzo, who benched Appling a few games in early February. “That’s the way he felt during those couple of weeks. There were more psychology meetings with me and him than there were basketball meetings. I don’t blame him. I understood it.”
Only recently, it seems, did Appling start to fully understand it as well. Before the Big Ten tournament, Izzo even had Appling’s high school coach in for a visit to help his point guard shake free mentally. They reminded him of where he was before the injury, and where he needed to be. Then they reminded him it wasn’t too late.
“We said, ‘You have potentially nine games left. As fast as it went down in seven (games), it can go up in nine,’ ” Izzo said.
The way Appling attacked the basket and generally didn’t hesitate to shoot — his 17 attempts last weekend were more than he had in the four previous losses the last month — was a step in the right direction. So were the lobs he threw to Payne and Branden Dawson, and the defense he played in dominant wins over Wisconsin and Michigan.
Feeling much better
But it was the grin on Appling’s face in Indianapolis last weekend — “I’m just going to smile as much as I can and try and take advantage of this opportunity,” he said — that probably was the best sign of life.
“There’s been games since I’ve been back that I didn’t even shoot the ball,” said Appling, who, while hardly a sharpshooter, actually was hitting better than 50 percent from 3-point range before his injury. “So to see the ball go through the basket a couple times felt pretty good for me. …
“I feel like everything is starting to come back. I feel like my body is starting to feel a lot better.”
Payne’s injuries that kept him sidelined for a full month at midseason are behind him as well. His conditioning remains an issue, and he can’t afford to pick up the kind of careless fouls he did last week in Indianapolis if the Spartans intend to play five or six more games, as Izzo said.
But for a guy who could’ve gone pro a year ago — “I came back to make it to the Final Four and win a championship,” Payne said — the nervous energy is at least understandable. So is the urgency for these seniors, knowing the next game could be their last.
Then again, as Appling said last weekend, “What better time for everything to start coming together than now?”