- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- It is not exactly how you’d imagine Tom Izzo would draw it up, at least not if the Michigan State coach had access to statistics and information. Tight game, up one, under two minutes left and Keith Appling, who hit 25 percent of the 3-pointers he tried a year ago, pulling up beyond the arc. It sounds more cringe worthy than game winner.
Except Izzo, of course, has access and knowledge to the backstory. He knows how Appling spent his summer vacation, if you will. He knows about the hours the guard spent locked in the gym.
And Izzo knows about the gun. That’s the funnel-like apparatus that masochistic coaches set up over the hoop, trying to force their players to improve the arc on their shot.
For Appling, the gun was, according to Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife, set to just about the top of the ceiling.
And so when Appling pulled up, with 7-foot Jeff Withey within an arms length no less, Izzo didn’t even blink.
More important, neither did Appling. The junior rose with a confidence that Reggie Miller would admire, sinking the trey and sealing a hard-fought 67-64 victory over Kansas in the Champions Classic.
“Keith is a phenomenal athlete but I think this summer he fell in love with the game again," Izzo said. “I’m proud of him. When you see a kid put in the work like that, it’s nice to see them get the reward in a game like this."
Should Appling’s growth continue, the reward could very well be for the Spartans. Sans Draymond Green, Michigan State is in need of a leader, and while senior Derrick Nix is the natural to fill the position, Appling -- as the point guard -- is almost more critical. But Appling has been frustratingly inconsistent in his MSU career, sometimes great, sometimes less so.
The Appling that showed up against Kansas was leaning toward the great version.
He scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, following up the blood-in-the-veins 3 with a sweet reverse layup to seal the victory.
More impressive, the 25 percent perimeter shooter drained three of three 3-pointers. He’s now 5-of-8 in two games.
“Coach has the confidence in me to put the ball in my hands," Appling said. “I give all the credit to him. In the years past, we had other guys who could do that. Now it’s my turn."
In a lot of ways, Appling is a prototypical player on a prototypical Izzo team. Guys under Izzo tend to get better as they get older and the Spartans tend to get better as the season goes along.
Two games in and that path appears to be on the fast track.
In the span of one weekend, Michigan State already looks better, going from a lackluster loss to Connecticut on Friday in Germany to this gritty win on Tuesday.
“Even though it was a long flight we had energy because we sure didn’t waste any against Connecticut," Izzo quipped.
It wasn’t just Appling that looked better. It was everybody. The big guys -- Adreian Payne, Nix and Branden Dawson -- were more active, matching up more than adequately against the size of Kansas. Withey had just eight points, Perry Ellis four and Jamari Traylor six, forcing the Jayhawks’ backcourt to do much of the work.
Maybe the most important factor for Michigan State aside from Appling was the quick overnight progress of his backcourt mate. Gary Harris looked like Gary Harris. The ballyhooed freshman admitted first-game jitters got the better of him against Connecticut and that he tried to heed his teammates’ advice in this game and just play.
He scored 18, virtually trading buckets with Appling during the second half.
“Keith Appling was terrific tonight," Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And Harris played very well. They just took over the game there for a while."
Self, though, is hardly going home wringing his hands over his Kansas team. His Jayhawks tend to follow the same sort of trajectory as Izzo’s teams, getting better as the season progresses. And the product as it’s currently construed isn’t terrible.
Some things need to get better. Freshman Ben McLemore has to take control more. Ellis, a terrific finesse player, has to learn how to play in grind-it-out ugly games. But it’s November, hardly a time to fret.
“We still have a long way to go to understand how to compete and be tougher mentally," Self said. “This is new to them. These freshmen are pretty green. They’ve been pretty sheltered in terms of their experiences."
Sheltered is not exactly a word anyone would use to describe Appling. When you’re a highly-sought-after McDonald’s All-American out of Detroit and you opt to go to East Lansing, there isn’t much in the way of hiding.
He has been a content role player for much of his career and a somewhat less contented point guard, forced into the role and out of his scoring comfort zone.
But if the early results are any indicator, he’s starting to find his niche. Perhaps the biggest question for Izzo this year was who would be the guy, the one to take the critical shot, the one to make the big play? That was Green’s job for so long.
With 1:33 left, Appling made a helluva audition for the role. Self had told Elijah Johnson to go under the ballscreen, which he did, but Withey didn’t hedge -- never budged really -- allowing Appling to take a dribble, back up to create space and launch.
“I just wanted to make enough room so I could get the shot off," Appling said.
He did, arcing the ball high and into the net, just like he did into the gun so many times this summer.