As Michigan State and Michigan prepare for what many think could be an epic rematch. The 22-6 (11-4) Spartans are concerned that the Wolverines 23-5 (10-5) they are preparing to take on are hurt and carry the motivation of being blown out earlier this year at the Breslin and losing to Penn State this week.
Michigan State can’t go another game with star PG Keith Appling failing to appear. They need him in Ann Arbor and Izzo has to hammer that point home without getting into the head of his McDonald’s All American.
Izzo said of that challenge, “Well, I think there’s a couple different issues with that. Everyone wants to know about, I explained to you guys that I knew I would hear, people that email me, ‘Well, Keith doesn’t play any more minutes than this guy, doesn’t play anymore minutes than that guy.’ Those of you that are big football watchers, did you ever watch a game and they say, ‘Well, they’re on a 12-play drive and the defense is wearing down.’ Well, why the hell isn’t the offense wearing down? They’re doing the same thing. It’s because it takes a little more effort to play defense. And I think we ask a lot of Keith. We ask him to do it on both ends of the floor. We usually ask him to guard the best player on the other team. But everybody deals with pressure a little differently.”
Pressure or not, one thing anyone with eyes has to admit is Appling’s struggles are not effort related. “I don’t think Keith has played his best basketball, but if I look at the last game, am I trying to take some of the pressure off of him? Sure. I’m a coach. Did we do our job as good as we could have? No we didn’t. Did our bigs do their job as big as they could have done? No, they didn’t. Were there some moving screen calls (that weren’t called — inaudible)? Yes there were. You put the whole thing together and when your man’s getting a layup, the first guy you want to blame is that guy, but there were other people involved, from the coaching staff to the other players.”
Izzo thinks some of the lofty expectations are people’s failure to really evaluate his performance in the games MSU has won. He said, “What Keith is done, he didn’t have a great game against Michigan. We all canonized him. He was 4-for-14 and one assist. Maybe he’s a product of your environment. Didn’t have any necessarily standout game. Keith has been very solid, he’s been good defensively, he’s made big plays down the stretch. And he missed a free throw or two. Gary missed a free throw or two. That game, if we would have defended better down the stretch, we would have won anyway against Indiana. So I don’t look at that as anything.”
Izzo puts enough pressure on Appling. Is he concerned how much comes with the success? “I’m concerned for Keith because he’s going to take the blunt of the pressure. But I told him since the day he’s been here, he’s the quarterback, that’s the way it works. He and I get it all. That’s why we’ve got to be on the same page together. We’re the two that get the credit. And losing to Indiana at home, losing to Ohio State down there, disappointing, but not shameful. There have been some guys who lost some games today, different teams, by 20 and 30 points, that they considered shameful. So I would not consider this any reason to panic — it was disappointing. And I mean that sincerely. I’m more concerned with making sure that everybody doesn’t heap everything on Keith. Because Keith isn’t the No. 1 problem. There were other guys who were supposed to do their job, that didn’t. And there were adjustments I think I could have made that would have changed it, too.”
One has to ask if Appling’s struggles are physical. Is he beat down? Izzo would have none of that. “No, no, there’s nothing physically. He’s played a lot of minutes. He’s played at a high level and he’s got to do a little bit more at times when it comes down to the end. It’s not always as easy. We don’t have four shooters on each side of him. He’s sometimes got to do more. So, it doesn’t matter if he’s doing more or less than guys from different teams. What matters is what he does for us. So I don’t really have any interest in hearing about what other people are doing. I only have interest in hearing about what Keith Appling has to do for us. That’s all I care about.”
Izzo know that despite the disappearances his star hasn’t been bad. “For the most part, he’s done a pretty good job. He’s growing as he goes. And when you start dealing with the pressure of the chance to win the Big Ten, the chance to do this, your name gets thrown around, the accolades go, everybody gets fat and sassy a little bit, or feels the pressure. One of the two. It looks to me like he’s feeling a little bit of the pressure. It brings you down a little bit.”
Izzo knows Appling well and wishes the Spartan Nation knew him the same way. He let us in on one of his key attributes. “One thing about Keith Appling, he’s a tough enough kid, if I had to pick tough kids on my team, he’d be in the top two. So he’s a tough enough kid that he’s going to bounce back. So players know that, and if you look at the other side of the coin, we’ve played as I said 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13. Those are the ranked teams we’ve played. And we’ve had a couple games that weren’t as good as others. But we’ve been in every game with two minutes left, one way or the other. And that’s what’s gonna be important as we move on.”
This Spartan program, thanks to Izzo’s scheduling shines in March. Is he worried that there may be some panic? “Are they panicking? No, because they know they can play with anybody. We’ve done it and we’ve done it on a consistent basis, game after game after game. Are we head and shoulders better than anybody? No, we’re not. I told you that the first day of the season. And I haven’t changed by opinion one bit. In fact, if anything we’ve superseded where I thought we’d be in some ways. And that’s the way I’m gonna move on.”
Still Appling’s struggles are not what you want in March. Is Izzo considering any adjustments to help him? “I don’t think I can do much different defensively with him. He and Harris are my two best defenders and they’ve got to cover guys that are the best offensive players on the other team. Offensively, you can move him around a little bit, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with missing a free throw. You know, usually a two guard is, more shots are gonna go up at the two guard. If they’re not shooting well, I’m not sure that always helps.”
So what will the famous tinkerer Izzo do? “But what I’m gonna do, I’m meeting with Keith today and we’re just gonna talk about where he thinks he is. Does he need some time off? Does he need some time to get in and shoot free throws? Shoot jump shots and get his confidence back? I mean, you don’t lose everything in two games, guys. It doesn’t happen that way. Even you guys were ready to canonize him for most of the Big Ten season. He’s had two games where he played un-Keith-Appling-like. I think that’s a tribute to him and how hard he plays 90% of the time. So I can be disappointed, I always will be upset with a player if he’s not playing up to the capability I think he can play to. But I also understand the reason. And it’s almost like, in talking to other coaches, it’s almost like we forgot what this schedule is like and this conference is like this year.”
In Izzo’s defense he has warned all year to the media, fans and his team that a slide was a real threat. The Big Ten is very talented and he wants fans that are ready to fall of the ship to calm down. “I hate to say it because somebody brought it up to me, that they were shocked to hear me say four, five games ago when we were rolling, I’m worried about a three-,four-game losing streak. I wasn’t saying that to brace myself. I wasn’t saying that to cover myself. I don’t need to do that. I was saying that because it’s the reality of what just about every team has gone through. We went 4-1 in one of our tough stretches. And now we, I can’t remember exactly but hey, we’re 7-3 on those ranked team stretches so far. Let’s not forget that. This was not a team picked to win the Big Ten.”
At the end of the day, the favorite son of the U.P. knows that what this program and he what lives for is ahead of him. That is of course March and tournament time. “So I don’t want to downplay it but I sure as hell don’t want to upplay it. Because there’s nothing to it. We didn’t get beat by 30 points. We didn’t have a blowout.”