Coming off their grittiest win of the season to date, the Spartans now sit at 19-2 overall and 8-1 in the battle for the Big Ten. Undermanned, over fouled, and out rebounded for most of Tuesday night, MSU battled through it all for the Overtime victory. Spartan Nation also enjoyed the emergence of Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello on a national stage. Of course, regular readers here already knew the importance of their play if any championships are to be earned, and probably felt a growing satisfaction as Costello and Valentine made clutch plays to keep the Spartans in it. The value of that Iowa City comeback may pay sizeable dividends when determining the eventual Big Ten champion.
When you think about the grit of this team, you start with Point Guard Keith Appling. Appling was already tough when he arrived to MSU, and by this point in his Senior year he’s practically as tough as nails and well on his way to forging another impressive entry to the Spartans’ Point Guard legacy. “He’s grown into his role,” Tom Izzo said about his floor general before the start of this recent stretch of marquee conference games.
The Point Guard position at Michigan State has evolved into one of the spotlight positions in the entire sport over the last 15 years or so. It was always going to be a special position after Magic Johnson came through and changed the position forever. Scott Skiles and Steve Smith more than added to the lineage too. But after Mateen Cleaves made his mark and the program returned to national prominence, that position’s focus really started to swell. Drew Neitzel led the team to a Final Four, but then Kalin Lucas’ success took it up another notch. Appling therefore arrived to the role with probably higher expectations of him than any Spartan PG in school history. “He’s adjusted to his position (in the role),” Izzo proudly said.
“He’s passing better, he’s shooting better, he’s always defended well,” Izzo described about Appling’s season to date, though he’s been significantly slowed by a lingering wrist injury. It hardly looks like he’s miss any playing time, of course, because that’s the kind of grinding Point Guard Appling has become. Yet, his shooting has improved over the years too, according to Izzo.
“The easiest thing to see in a game is if the ball is being shot flat,” Izzo said about coaching shooting during an actual game. “We used to deal with that a lot (with Appling).” Appling has found his form from the outside this year, shooting 42% for the year behind the arc this year, hoping a healed up wrist might help bump that even higher.
His understanding of the game has matured as well. Izzo is happy to describe him as a “Morris Peterson” type story, meaning he went through some growing stages from year to year, to put it lightly. A chunk of that growth from last season was Appling’s investment in watching film of himself and comparing it with both NBA and past Spartan floor generals, Izzo explained.
With Appling hanging in there and leading the Spartans to a fine first three months of the season, other players in the MSU lineup have seen their opportunities increase due to injuries. Never was that more evident than Tuesday night as Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello spurred on the Spartans’ comeback win, with Russell Byrd pushing them over the top by draining the key 3-ball with 30-seconds left in OT.
“Valentine and Harris have rebounded a lot better,” Izzo said about a collective team effort to increase production on the glass. Valentine can do a lot of different things on the court, as Spartan Nation widely knows, and he’s never been one to back down from a challenge. “He actually played pretty well against Michigan, he just didn’t score.” Even before his big night in Iowa City, Izzo knew the direction Valentine’s game was trending. “I’ve been pleased with Denzel, it’s just that we’ve put him in some tough positions (earlier this year).”
It’s not just those veteran Sophomores that are raising their game. MSU’s starting to get something out of their somewhat mysterious Freshmen duo. These days if a major program recruit isn’t verbally committed to a school before his Senior High School season, some wonder if something has gone askew. The Spartans ended up with just two late adds to create the class for 2014, but as Spartan Nation has quickly learned, that doesn’t mean they won’t contribute this year.
“I didn’t know as much what to expect,” Izzo said about Alvin Ellis, a one-time Minnesota commit who took a look around after Tubby Smith was let go. “He thought he could be a really good player,” Izzo said about conversations with Smith about the Guard from Chicagoland. Though we didn’t see much from Ellis early, he’s making up for any lost time now.
As we’ve gotten deeper into winter and the Spartan lineup has become thinner, Ellis has begun working his way into some playing situations, and possibly earning more quality minutes. “(He has a) really has a good understanding of the game,” Izzo said. That trait means a lot to Izzo, especially when it comes to crunch time line ups. “I think Alvin Ellis is going to be a really good player here.”
Gavin Schilling saw a bit of spot duty as well over the first part of the season, but may see more time the rest of the way. “(A) phenomenal athlete for a kid 6’9,” Izzo proclaimed. Schilling can make an impact while the Spartans are short a couple bodies up front if he can show a nose for the ball around the rim. “He’s kind of raw,” Izzo added about the big bodied, athletic youngster. He can also make his mark, of course, in the most “Spartan Way” of getting after loose balls and bringing a defensive intensity. That’s what you can hope to see out of him next.
“If there is some kind of a silver lining in this big (injury) cloud that we’ve been under…those two guys have emerged and gotten better,” Izzo summed up. Before these past few weeks, some had a hunch that the Spartans had more in this small Freshmen class than people had yet to realize. As we’ve seen more from them on the court, that looks more like it may be the case.
After their return trip to New York for a Super Bowl Weekend made for TV non-conference tilt with Georgetown, the Spartans host Penn State before making the difficult trip to Madison next Sunday. Though it looks a ways off now, MSU has three games in nine days, with two healthy bits of travel included. They’ll need the best of Appling and contributions from the entire playing roster if they can go undefeated for the first 10 days of February. “This team pulls for each other better than any team I’ve ever had here,” Izzo summed up.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- Mateen Cleaves is not only a Spartan legend, he’s arguably the best leader the entire sport has had in the last 20-some years. He played professionally around the world, and is currently a major media figure covering the pro and college game. When he speaks, it matters. Recently while watching Oklahoma St. versus Oklahoma, he spoke alarmingly via Twitter, @Mateen_Cleaves.
- “I am watching this #OKSTvsOU and these refs are making to many calls. Let the kids play. Good players on both I wanna see them play,” Cleaves said initially. You couldn’t really argue with him, nor was this game wasn’t the exception. It’s sadly become the norm. When this kind of figure in your sport is publicly pointing this mess out, you’re in serious trouble. “I can’t take it anymore please refs let the kids play we wanna watch kids make plays not you guys making calls. #OKSTvsOU,” he later added.
- If you start to lose touch with one of the current icons of your sport, you’re probably already losing thousands of fans (both casual and even serious) to one of the hundred other entertainment and sports options available at any given time. I don’t see anyone inside the sport noticing this trend with a proper amount of urgency. I don’t see any clear leadership or direction in College Basketball right now, or even a plausible clue of how to lead this slipping game into the future. The ship has been slowly sinking for a while now, but may now be taking on its heaviest water yet. This season may be placing this sport on a dangerous path to a cable only “niche” sport if nothing is done. That would be an all-time shame.