COLUMBUS, Ohio - I never asked, but I knew exactly why Tom Izzo sent Keith Appling to the press conference podium here at the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
And on Sunday, Appling belonged at the podium. Much of the stage became his.
Appling isn't a great quote. He isn't a great player. But at some point in the years to come, this will be his team. And at some point in this NCAA Tournament, Izzo knew there would come a time when Appling would have to perform as if this were his team.
That time came during Michigan State's battle of Saint Louis in the round-of-32 of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Appling answered with 19 points and a kill shot of a 3-pointer that put Michigan State up 58-51 with 1:34 left. From that point on, it was a game of fouls and free throws. Appling made four of them as Michigan State won, 65-61.
The fact that Draymond Green had to show every angle of his versatility in order to drive MSU past Saint Louis amazed Rick Majerus and national media.
The rest of us brushed aside the fact that Michigan State is in the Sweet 16 again. That's 10 times in 15 years. That's a step deeper into Dean Smith/John Wooden/Mike Krzyzewski territory for Mr. Tom Izzo.
But for those of us who follow Michigan State closely, Appling's gutsy delivery of seven crucial field goals on a day when Michigan State would make only 25, on a day when Majerus and the Billikens wanted Appling to be the guy to shoot, on a day when Appling attempted three more field goals than Green, it all marked a mammoth leap for the sophomore point guard who has struggled to find his shot all season, and is still trying to find a voice.
And it's a big step in player development for this Michigan State team that played well this weekend, and advanced, without exhibiting its A-game.
The Spartans will probably need an A-game in next week's Regional Semifinals against Louisville. And now, after this performance by Appling and Green's continued excellence, the specter of MSU's A-game carries a bit more punch.
It's a Spartan team that Izzo said is still improving, still with a higher ceiling to aspire to. And now its point guard has delivered on a rescue mission. The sum of the team's parts has grown.
He Was Right Again
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Appling wasn't asked many questions at the podium. His answers were brief. He did his best. Sometimes he wondered why he had to come to these press conferences in the first place. All of the questions were directed at Draymond Green.
But Sunday night, the questions went to Appling. His answers were thoughtful and insightful.
As Appling left the podium, Izzo grabbed him by the arm and whispered a few things in his ear.
We waited a few seconds for that exchange to end before the press conference could resume.
"Sorry about that," Izzo said to media. "It was just a little ... a little moment."
We to ask Izzo what he said to Appling.
"What I talked to him about here is ... once in a while I think he feels foolish," Izzo said. "He's a shyer kid. He doesn't love press conferences. And I always tell him I've been there; I did that before. And he happens to sit next to a college version of Dick Vitale.
"I said learn a little bit from him (Green). But at the same time, I told him before the game: 'You play well, Keith, you're going to keep getting better. You're the leader of the team, you're the quarterback of a team that's now a No. 1 seed; and if you do, you get to those press conferences, they ask you questions.'
"And today the first four or five questions were for him. And I just wanted to prove to him I'm right again."
This wasn't about preparing Appling to answer questions at a press conference. This wasn't about giving Appling publicity. It was about Izzo giving Appling a new glimpse of what college basketball is like at this level, and preparing him for the day when he IS the man. It will help next year. It will help next week. Appling's NCAA Tournament indoctrination has taken another step. It was a major step toward basketball manhood.
These were only press conference. They have nothing to do with what happens between the lines, right?
Well, maybe not. Izzo knows this stuff better than we do. He never misses an angle, never squanders a chance to build and polish the next layer of the program.
Maybe Appling would have hit those shots anyway against Saint Louis. Maybe Green would have begged Appling to shoot anyway. But did the kid from Detroit look comfortable, or what? It looked like he never had a doubt.
Those of us who know Appling, know this team, know this season, and know Izzo, we will look back and think about the head coach and wonder about these calculations he made as to which players would go to these press conferences, and we will wonder if Izzo's decisions indeed had an impact on Appling. We don't know. All we know is that Izzo is now 17-3 in one-day preps against the best teams in America.
We'll never know, because none of us speak Izzo's language on this stuff. None of us understand the whole picture. If we understood, if other coaches understood, then there would be others at 17-3 on one-day prep. But there aren't. Izzo remains a brilliant x's and o's guy, a great late-night film guy and game planner, but he is also a master at coaching the hotels, coaching the planes, coaching the team busses, and yes, coaching the press conferences. He utilizes every detail.
Izzo knew Appling would be unafraid.
"Izzo played it really smart, told him to shoot," Majerus said.
Majerus is known for sagging off of weak shooters, fortifying his defense on the opponent's stars, and making role players beat him.
He did it to defending National Champion Arizona in the 1998 Regional Final, putting a triangle-and-two on Miles Simon and Michael Bibby. It worked for Majerus on that night, when he was head coach at Utah.
He tried it in 2000 against Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when he sagged his defense off of Mateen Cleaves. It didn't work for Majerus on that night. Cleaves made him pay by hitting open shots. Just like Appling did on this day.
For Majerus, a master tactician, leaving Appling open was a risk worth taking. He wanted to do everything he could to prevent Draymond Green from beating him.
"(Tony) LaRussa he has a good line about you walk that batter intentionally who is like a .350 hitter, and then that .260 hitter behind him becomes a .300 hitter," Majerus said. "I think that's what happens."
Appling became a .300 hitter. Or in this case, a 50 percent shooter.
It was only the third time all year that he attempted more shots in a game than Green, and the first time since the loss at Northwestern.
Appling has been a pretty good medium-range shooter most of the year. But his long-range shooting went sour early in the season, and never came back.
He was a dreadful 8-of-46 on 3-pointers during the Big Ten regular season (17 percent). That's Doug Gottlieb bad. It wasn't a slump. It's what he is. His shot is flat and broken. Izzo knew it, and knew that fixing a broken shot at mid-season is impossible. The shot will have to be restructured in the summer, and doctored with tens of thousands of reps. But what to do about it now?
After Appling's worst game of the year, a loss at Michigan on Jan. 17, Izzo had a meeting with Appling and redirected the sophomore guard's outlook on basketball. Izzo wanted Appling to become more of a facilitator, and avoid feeling pressure of having to take many shots.
Appling played solid basketball the rest of the year, and avoided that kind of pressure.
Until now. When Rick Majerus got ahold of film and the stat sheet, he quickly determined that he wanted to steer his five-man defensive effort toward stopping Draymond Green in the post, at the expense of leaving Appling open.
Appling was good in this game. He wasn't great. Saint Louis kind of expected him to be bad, or at least tentative, or scared. But this kid doesn't get scared. This is the kid who just two years ago lit up the court at Breslin Center with a record 49 points in the Class A State Championship game.
Two years before that, Appling stood on that same Breslin floor, playing against Draymond Green's Saginaw High team. Green was a high school senior. Appling was a sophomore at Detroit Pershing.
While Green's teammates dribbled out the final seconds of the game and Green secured his second straight state title, Green looked across the halfcourt line at Appling.
"I'm coming here," Appling mouthed to Green, as the final seconds clicked down.
Appling pointed downward at the court for emphasis to make sure Green understood.
"I'm coming here," Appling said.
To Michigan State.
Green had already signed with MSU. Appling hadn't yet given a verbal commitment. Appling wouldn't give an official verbal until later that summer. But Appling pledged to Green on a personal basis right then, before the final buzzer of the 2008 State Championship Game.
Afterward, we asked Green what Appling had said to him in the final seconds of that game. We could read lips. We could figure it out. But Green wouldn't confirm anything.
"That's between me and him," Green said.
Then Green went out during the trophy presentation and kissed the S at mid-court. As a high school player. Appling watched.
Beggars And Choosers
The Keith Appling whom Rick Majerus dared to shoot might have been the 17 percent Keith Appling.
But the Keith Appling who actually went up with those shots was the 49-point Keith Appling
Draymond knew it would be.
"All night they (Saint Louis) pretty much were begging me to shoot the ball," Appling said.
"All night I was begging him to shoot too," Green said.
Saint Louis dared Appling. Green wanted him to take that dare.
"We got in the huddle in one of our timeouts," Appling said. "And Draymond instilled some confidence in me, told me I was a 41percent 3‑point shooter last year, so shoot the ball."
Izzo listened and didn't dissuade it. Izzo drew up a play and let Green make the final decisions on the floor.
Izzo put the game was in Green's hands. He passed it to Appling on two pivotal occasions.
MSU's double-digit lead had been cut to 51-49. Saint Louis had momentum. They were charging hard with 3:10 to play.
Izzo directed for the offense to be run through Green near the top of the key.
"When we came out of the timeouts late, we weren't able to get the ball inside," Izzo said. "It was so physical we just couldn't get it in there. And I just said I'm going to put the ball in his hands at the point and have (Derrick) Nix screen for him. We ran some big‑big ball screens and that was an adjustment for us."
Up by 2 points and a season's worth of momentum having swung to Saint Louis, Green executed a side screen-and-roll with Nix. Green drove into an open space until it closed. He dished to Appling along the base line. Appling had been left wide open. The 49-point Appling went up and swished a 10-footer. Cool as a Cadillac.
Saint Louis cut the lead back to 53-51. Izzo called time out.
Again Izzo drew up the oldest play in basketball - the screen and roll. But again he did it with two bigs, which is a unique twist. The big&big screen and roll meant that Saint Louis's help defender was also a big man, not a particularly agile big man, and unable to shadow Green when they were out 20 feet from the rim.
There aren't many big men that can stress a defense with 3-point range. There are even fewer who can also drive to score, or post up and score. And fewer still who can threaten the drive and instead create a jumper off the dribble as part of a big&big screen/roll. And only one who can do all that shit, rebound like Greg Kelser, and also pass like Oscar Freaking Robertson.
They call that man DayDay.
He comes from Saginaw, Michigan.
"I think Green is the best player in the country," Majerus said. "Is he the best potential player in the country? No, I take the kid probably from Kentucky. But if I had to take a kid right now to win the national championship, I'd take Draymond Green.
"Draymond Green does what great players do; he creates his own shot and makes it."
MSU had trouble creating open shots for Green. Any open looks that he received were cherished. MSU created two 3-pointers for him off deceptive, quick-hitting set plays. One from a box set, one from a 1-4 set.
Both times, Green acted like he was going down low, but then he popped back out for a 3-pointer. The defense was surprised and caught off-balance. The shot window was small and brief. The pass had to be on time. The shot had to be a quicker-than-usual release, and he needed to take advantage of these rare opportunities when he had an unmolested look at the basket.
The one out of the 1-4 set cut an early Saint Louis lead to 15-14. It was a nice answer, right after a time out.
"We scored on a timeout, he scored on a timeout," Majerus said of Izzo. "It was like, okay, we're coming out of a timeout, which of the 50 plays are each one of us running?"
That was one of only two field goals Green would hit in the first half.
The one out of the box set was Green's first field goal of the second half. It gave MSU a 31-26 lead. Majerus bowed in respect, and described it:
"When (Brian) Conklin had him on that one, he cut back underneath the 5 man and then he ducks back for a 3. I mean, like Tyler Hansbrough, other real good players, they're not doing that."
Green's Conversation With Nix
At halftime when the Spartans came back on the floor, most players shot jumpers and free throws. Nix sat near mid-court, stretching out. Green approached Nix, leaned over and spoke to him for about a minute.
Green told him to adjust to the way the game was being played and officiated. He told Nix not to be too physical when Nix got it down low, because once he got it down there, Saint Louis was going to stop holding and mucking, and they were going to start flopping.
He didn't want Nix to try to bull through the resistance down low. He told Nix to go to finesse moves when he got it down there. Nix nodded and said "okay."
Then Green went to the foul line and had time to shoot three practice free throws before the second half began.
Green knew he wouldn't be able to take all of the important shots. Some would have to go to Nix, some to Appling. Green knew those guys could get cleaner looks if he maximized the crowd around him, and capitalized by passing to teammates. But first, he needed to joystick those teammates. He needed to direct them and prod them to areas where they could be successful. And he let them know he had confidence that they could finish.
"That's probably the intangible that you don't get to see that might be his greatest intangible," Izzo said of Green. "He just picks up things so well.
"We watched some film at 1 o'clock in the morning on Friday night (an hour after the LIU game), just to go to bed thinking about Saint Louis. And the next morning he's rattling off some things. And after a couple of walkthroughs and he's already got it down."
Izzo has never had a player quite like that. Not even Cleaves. Not to that extent.
"And he can tell other people what to do," Izzo said. "He's got a voice. Some guys can tell but don't. He does. And he does it in good ways, bad ways, but they respect him and take it."
With four minutes left, Izzo checked with Green as to who the senior wanted in the game. Green called for Travis Trice to check in. Trice checked in.
Later, Green told Izzo to bring Payne in for Trice. Green said it loud enough that Trice heard. Green went over and gave Trice a hug, and sent him to the bench.
Izzo says the best teams are player-coached teams. Make no mistake, Izzo was still coaching this team. But Izzo is at his best when he has a player who thinks the way he does, and can take over the puppet strings. As good as Izzo is, a coach can't see everything on the court the way a player can. It's a huge luxury for Izzo to be able to lean on Green's viewpoint.
"I can't speak on how important that is to have a guy that you know you trust, and I trust him," Izzo said.
Izzo nurtured Green to utilize all of his faculties, and raised this team to take direction from a player-coach.
And then Izzo had to live with the decisions. On this day, Green decided to first go to Nix, then to Appling.
"I went up to Draymond and I said: 'Look it, I'm going to put the ball in your hands the last three minutes because we can't get it to you down low," Izzo said, "but you've got to make good decisions.
"He'd be the first to tell you, once in a while, beginning of the game, he's so jacked, he'll jack a 3 or something. I said we can't do that. We gotta penetrate. We gotta penetrate under control. If you're open, you have to shoot it. If not, you've got to find somebody else. He found Nix and Appling."
Green started looking for them 17 minutes earlier, as he had planned at halftime. Izzo drew up the first concept shortly after Nix checked in for his initial minutes of the second half. MSU ran one of its most common plays. They fed the ball to Thornton at the foul line, and MSU's guards cut through the lane and popped out on opposite wings.
Seemingly 95 percent of the time throughout the season, on this play, the ball has gone to Green's side of the court. The guards-through action used to be utilized for a catch-and-shoot opportunity for a shooting guard on the wing. But this year, it became an area-clearer in order to get an entry pass to Green posting up on the block from a 45-degree angle.
Izzo knew Majerus would be all over this play. He knew the defense would be skewed toward Green's side, tilted to beat Green to his spot on the low post, sagging to take away the pass on that side.
Izzo anticipated this, and drew it up to go to the other side, to Nix.
The pass was made from the 45-degree angle on the other side, and Nix briefly had more room to operate than usual. Nix scored with a quick but decisive finesse move. Izzo liked it.
After the basket, Izzo stood, held up two hands, and told Appling: "Slow. Slow."
Earlier in the week, Izzo said he wanted to run. Run vs LIU. Run the rest of the way - when applicable.
He suddenly liked the half-court pace a little better. He thought the methodical approach was now better. He liked the Green/Nix halfcourt dynamic.
Next time down, Green passed to Nix on a high-low. Green was up high, past the foul line. The defense went out there with him. Again, this created room for Nix. Nix caught Green's pass, remembered Green's advice, and scored with touch and finesse.
Next time, the defense tried to harass Green a bit more out at the top of the key. Green swept the ball through to protect it, through the hands of a defender. The defender pawed at it. Green pawed back. The defender fell down. Saint Louis fans howled. To them, on the other side of the floor, it looked like a Heisman stiff-arm move.
Green didn't hang around for questions. He drove, dished to Nix, got it back, then gave it back to Nix. It was a give-and-go-and-give. That time, the defender got enough of Nix to foul him and prevent the basket. Nix made both foul shots to put MSU up 41-30.
:40 seconds later, Green checked out for his last breather.
By the time he subbed back in, the lead was down to 47-39. Nix went to the bench for his breather.
By the time Nix checked back in, putting Nix and Green on the floor together again, the lead was down to 49-46 with 5:28 to go.
Time to go back to what Green and Nix talked about at halftime. Green knew which personnel he wanted, and he knew how he wanted Nix to operate. Izzo called a play accordingly, during the next time out. Again it resulted in Green feeding Nix on a high-low. Nix made a nice, soft hook shot to put MSU up 51-46.
Saint Louis cut it to 51-48.
Again, Green went to Nix. This time Nix fumbled the entry pass, lost it out of bounds for a turnover.
Saint Louis cut it to 51-49.
Everything was still going through MSU's point power forward. But Green changed his go-to guy.
That's when Green drove and dished to Appling for the baseline jumper. Saint Louis was still leaving Appling open.
"The guy that we wanted to make shots, he hit a couple," said Saint Louis power forward Brian Conklin. "And that's the difference in the game, four points, but that was the whole game plan."
Then during a time out with 2:01 left, that's when Green pumped Appling with belief and encouragement. All Appling needed was the Green light. Then came Appling's dagger.
Green drove as part of a side screen-and-roll. Appling spotted up on the other side of the court.
"When I drove I saw the defense collapse, and one thing I don't want to do is drive in there and get a charge," Green said. "And I knew that that's a very well‑coached team and they're taught to take charge if somebody's out of control.
"So I just tried to go in there under control. And when I jumped up, I was going to lay it up with a left hand. I saw how the defense had collapsed and Keith was wide open."
Green had an eye on the rim, drove, jumped. It looked for sure like he was going for the shot. But then he instantly fired a two-handed, over-head pass to Appling.
"One of the things that people forget is Keith had just hit three shots prior to that, three jump shots," Green said. "I remember those things. And his confidence had gotten rolling, and one thing I want him to always know is I have confidence in him.
"I don't need to be a hero trying to make some scoop layup. If I see a guy open, I'm going to hit him. He was wide open in the corner, and I knew once he caught the ball, it was going in. I ran from out of bounds. I kept running. I didn't try to get the rebound. I ran down the court. I already knew it was going in."
It should go down as one of the best passes in MSU history. We remember the Skiles wrap-around pass that punctuated the upset of Georgetown in 1986. We remember Magic's over-the-shoulder pass to Kelser for the final dunk against Indiana State in 1979. We remember the screen/re-screen lob to MoPete for the dunk against Iowa State.
Those were memorable, highlight-reel passes. Some freelance. Some pre-meditated. Some crucial.
I'm not saying this one was better. But it was different.
I watched this one from a few feet away. Appling was in my line of vision. At no point did I think the pass was going his way. Green seemed like he was headed purely to the rim for his shot. When he made the pass, it had such zip, such accuracy, with such a quick release that I concluded that this must have been the plan all along: Draymond with the drive, setting up Appling for the shot.
I was impressed that someone in the huddle had the nerve to draw it up for Appling to take that shot. The execution was too sharp, fast and precise for it to be an impromptu read. But that's exactly what it was. An impromptu read which came off like a precision plan. It was a great, great, great pass. A great pass, people. A great pass.
"We drew up a play for him (Draymond), and the defense collapsed and I was wide open," Appling said. "He hit me with a pass that was perfect, right in my shooter's pocket, and I was able to knock it down.As soon as it came off of my hands, it felt good. And once I saw it go through the hoop, I was all smiles."
Any tentativeness or doubt on Appling's behalf, and it wouldn't have went in. This was the 49 version of Appling. The Appling who honed his game on Steve Smith Court at Pershing High.
"What was nice to see Keith come full circle," Izzo said. "To step up at the end and hit the big shots shows you a little bit about his toughness. I think he's mentally and physically very tough. That is hard when somebody's backing off of you if you're not ready for it.
"He'll be ready for it if somebody else wants to try it."
Now Appling has carved out a page of MSU tournament lore, as the shaky shooter who made big shots when an opponent dared him to do so. Just like David Thomas against John Chaney's zone in the 2001 Regional Finals. Just like Travis Walton against USC's triangle-and-two in the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Both of those Spartan teams went to the Final Four. If this team follows suit, the Appling shots which beat Majerus will serve as a major chapter in this story.
On this stormy Sunday afternoon in mid-Ohio, Appling grew as a trusted gun. Brandan Kearney grew in a different way, a painful way. He is now armed with new knowledge of tournament intensity.
Kearney struggled on defense. Saint Louis singled him out, posted him up, caught him in errors on switches. He ran a play incorrectly on offense, resulting in a turnover and an Austin Thornton foul.
With Thornton in foul trouble and Branden Dawson on crutches, Michigan State NEEDED quality, accountable minutes from Kearney unlike any other time this season. He faltered. And then he cried on the bench.
Conklin cried at the podium after the game. It would be easy to feel sorry for Conklin, if you didn't watch the game. But when you see a replay of his calculated, deliberate, dirty shoulder block tackle on Thornton, then you'll want to laugh at him for crying.
It takes a big man to cry in public. It takes a bigger man to laugh at that man who is crying in public. Lessons from Jack Handy were put to use by Thornton, who wanted it on the record, multiple times, to any reporter with a pen and paper and any camera in the room, that Conklin's hit was the dirtiest play Thornton had ever been involved with. It rendered Thornton groggy. He fought cobwebs and a brewing migraine to attempt free throws in the final seconds, including the game-clincher.
We've known Thornton for five years. We had never heard Thornton talk like that. It was a good thing.
We've known Kearney only a short time. We had never seen Kearney react like that. It was also a good thing. We know him better now. And we like him.
Kearney tweeted an hour after the game: "Didn't play well today, got frustrated showed some tears and emotion but in March the name of the game is called Survive and Advance!"
MSU fans saw how important this is to Kearney. That's refreshing for MSU fans. He wanted to win even more than the fans did. They'll love him for it and they will never forget it.
"Brandan Kearney has played better and more than I thought he would," Izzo said. "I warned those two guys (Kearney and Travis Trice) that you're going to get tested by some veterans that have been here and done that. And we did bite on some things.
"For the first time in a while I thought they played like freshmen. But that's okay. It's okay."
More teaching points. More growth. Izzo will take both.
"At halftime I said: It's okay that you're playing like freshmen," Izzo said. "DayDay did the same thing and so did Nix and so did Thornton when they were freshmen, but I didn't have to play them. I gotta play you guys. So we gotta grow up here in 20 minutes and we gotta get a little better.
"And he (Kearney) has been a very good defensive player. I think everything kind of got to him a little bit. And he struggled a little bit.
"But I bet it's going to be one of the best learning experiences he has in his life. And I'd be shocked if he doesn't bounce back, because he has been a very intelligent player and very good defensive player. He's shooting the ball better in practice than all year.
"So it's just part of being a young guy that's going to learn what it's like. And it will be good. It will be good for him. He'll be a better player next week."
The character development is riveting within this made-for-TV mini-series called the West Regional.
We've known for a long time that Draymond is very good. Now we're watching him flirt with greatness. As in national, all-time, Trivial-Pursuit-answer greatness.
Will it stop at 16? At 8? In some regard, we feel like we have seen this movie before. But reality tells us the script has yet to be written. However it ends, we must remember the sweetness of this one.
Getting to 16 is always sweet. Raymar Morgan once lost teeth getting here. Kalin Lucas once blew an Achilles getting here.
The first time Izzo advanced to the Sweet 16, he grabbed Mateen at mid-court and yelled, "I told you we'd get here!" That was after beating Princeton in 1998. That felt like a culmination. We had no idea what was ahead. Never forget what that one felt like, if you are old enough to remember. Six-teen isn't merely a memory-maker; it's a career-maker for some. Majerus cried last night because he doesn't know if he'll ever get there again.
Izzo has done it so often we should all have cavities.
Steve Smith would have gone farther than 16 if officials had been free to utilize replays in his day; but 16 was far as he got. And he was great. So was Skiles. And that's as far as he got. Mateen bashed heads with Najera to get past 16.
Some called this ugly basketball, what took place between Izzo and Majerus. But that word is an insult to the film work and planning that went into each team's defense, and the prickly obstacles MSU faced in trying to find scoring with Plan D, Plan E and Plan F. The intricate adjustments were fascinating. Two of the best coaches on the planet pushing buttons and pulling levers that were formulated during two all-night cram sessions. It yielded unlikely heroes making historic plays in a firestorm of cuts, bruises and migraines.
If you want pretty basketball, go watch tapes of Memphis, Duke and Missouri. Or Appling's 49. And know that that was not his last time to shine. Nor was this.
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