March 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

For Michigan State to move on, Keith Appling must prove reliable as a shooter

Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski preview MSU-Virg...
Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski preview MSU-Virg...: Detroit News sports writers discuss the Spartans' Sweet 16 game.

New York — He’s giving what he has, which is more than he had a few weeks ago. But as the opponents grow and the road turns, Keith Appling will have to give even more.

That’s how it works when you’re the point guard for Michigan State, and especially when you head into a Sweet 16 collision with top-seeded Virginia and its super sticky defense. The Spartans have everyone and almost everything back, framed by one nagging question.

When the offense hits an immovable defense and options are reduced, will Appling be able (and willing) to shoot?

He hears it so much, he allowed himself a chuckle when asked about it Thursday. This is a guy who was a Big Ten player of the year candidate before he hurt his right wrist, and while he might be fully healed, he isn’t necessarily fully back. He averaged about 11 shots before the injury worsened, and has a total of six the past two games.

“I have a lot of people — a lot of people — telling me to shoot the ball more,” Appling said. “But honestly, if I go out there and shoot the ball 20 times and we lose, what difference does that make? I could care less how many shots I get, as long as we win.”

The Spartans haven’t needed sharp shooting from Appling, at least not yet. But odds are they will, as early as tonight. The Cavaliers play with tremendous patience on offense and discipline on defense, and their primary goal is to stifle the Spartans transition and turn this into, oh, a 48-46 game. They have a freshman point guard, London Perrantes, who doesn’t make many mistakes and are led by 6-6 senior guard Joe Harris.

Primed and ready

It’s a delicate balance for Tom Izzo, who likes what Appling brings on defense, on the fast break and with increasingly vocal leadership. Along with Adreian Payne, Appling is a senior desperately driven by the power of Michigan State’s Final Four history. When he says he doesn’t care about scoring points, Izzo believes him. But what happens if that moment arrives in a grinding half-court game and a team like Virginia dares him to shoot?

“I’ve been fortunate when you look at (Mateen) Cleaves and (Travis) Walton and now Appling, I’ve had guards where winning is a priority over selfish scoring,” Izzo said. “I told Keith he’s got to get more selfish. … The wrist has been 95 percent good for a couple weeks. The problem is, you gotta get your confidence back as a shooter, as a quarterback, as a pitcher, as a goalie. The mental part becomes almost as big as the physical part.”

Cleaves knows it as well as anyone, and has helped guide Appling through it. The two talk or text after every game, and the conversation can be constructive or harsh. Cleaves was courtside at Madison Square Garden on Thursday as part of his duties for the CBS Sports Network, but in this case, neutrality didn’t fit.

He wore a Michigan State sweatshirt and a knowing look. He led the Spartans to the national championship in 2000 by being unselfish and determined, and his scoring numbers dropped as the team rose. So his advice to Appling comes from an informed place.

“Whatever it takes, if that’s getting a stop, if that’s making the play, if that’s making a shot, just win,” Cleaves said. “I told him, if you gotta get on a guy and tick off your best friend, just find a way. Even though he’s healthier, it takes time to be yourself again. I think he’s primed and ready for a breakout game.”

Smashing success

With the way Payne, Branden Dawson and others are playing, Appling might not need to score 20 points, as he did seven times the first two months of the season. There’s a chance he simply needs to be the toughest point guard on the floor. But the Spartans haven’t carved through NCAA Tournaments over the years by leaving things to chance.

When Appling got in foul trouble last weekend and Harvard rallied, the reality frightened him. He took two shots in the game and played 22 minutes and there he was, slumped on the bench, watching the lead dwindle.

Afterward, he declared it didn’t matter if he’s the “super-hero, the unsung hero or a nobody” as long as Michigan State advances, and that’s an admirable response. It also goes against Appling’s instincts, from when he was a prolific scorer and state champion at Detroit Pershing. He was carving out a fantastic senior season before suffering the injury Dec. 4 against North Carolina. It wasn’t bad at first but got progressively worse, turning Appling into a picture of gloom, his confidence cracked.

“It was almost mind-blowing to be so far up here, then all the way down to the bottom,” Appling said, holding his right hand high, then lowering it to the floor. “I caught myself laying in bed at night like, wow, is this really happening to me? … It’s not out of my head, but I’m feeling a lot more comfortable.”

A lot of people have climbed into Appling’s head the past few weeks, while he’s tried to clear it out. Virginia will attempt to fill it up again with an agitating defense that allows 55 points and 39 percent shooting per game. Harris said the Cavaliers prefer to play a “grind-it-out, smash-mouth type of game,” and the numbers confirm it.

If there’s going to be some mouth-smashing, the Spartans will need every mouth and every weapon available. That doesn’t mean Appling has to fire a bunch of shots, but he has to be ready if that’s what it takes.

Keith Appling, practicing Thursday in Madison Square Garden, has averaged two shots the last two games. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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