INDIANAPOLIS — There were two jump shots Saturday that I thought preserved Michigan State’s lead more than any other. They came early-ish in the second half, the Spartans’ once-mammoth lead trimmed to 10, with Wisconsin clearly deciding that baiting Keith Appling to shoot — or at least sagging off of him to prevent his drive — was the best course of action.
It was brilliant defense. Basketball is so much about confidence. Assault a player’s confidence and you’ve beating them. Disrespect a player’s ability to hit shots — especially one who once score 49 points in a state title game — and you’re messing with their head.
Appling handled it perfectly, though. He didn’t let it linger. He recognized what was happening, crossed over his defender and let it fly, twice scoring from about 17 feet. It’s critical MSU’s point guard make defenses think twice about packing lane and backing off of him. If he misses a few, so be it.
“Once I figured out they were laying off me,” Appling responded, when I asked when he knew he had to shoot.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good shooter,” he continued, smiling, knowing full well his struggles since January. “So if defenses are going to lay off me, I’m going to take the shot.”
That’s the correct approach. Appling’s performance was understated in Saturday’s win. He is not the player he was two months ago. But he’s at a level — pushing the ball, attacking the rim enough, defending, hustling, making sound decisions — in which MSU can win big if the rest of its parts keep playing as they are.
U-M’s influence on MSU: By the time Michigan finished off MSU on Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor, it was clear to me the Wolverines were in the Spartans’ heads. I wrote a column for Sunday’s Lansing State Journal on the importance of Sunday’s Big Ten tourney final to a rivalry at a crossroads.
This is still, slightly, Michigan State’s state. But the Wolverines have this particular group of Spartans on edge. MSU is even taking note of its rival.
“I think (Denzel Valentine), he kind of hit it, he brought a line and he said, down the stretch, when Michigan made a run (on Feb. 23), they stayed together,” Branden Dawson said. “They didn’t point fingers when they turned the ball over. I think that’s what we did toward the end. We started pointing fingers toward the end and didn’t play together.”
Dawson said MSU’s loss to Illinois was the end of pointing figures at each other.
Dawson, of course, has been MSU’s best player the last two days, better than I’ve ever seen him. He’s hitting shots, rebounding, playing defense — mostly, he’s engaged. And, of course, he’s the variable that makes it unclear who is actually the better team. Dawson didn’t play in either of the regular season meetings. He’ll guard one of U-M’s three NBA wings today.
“I’m very excited to be given a chance just to play against these guys,” Dawson said Saturday. “Just sitting out watching those two games, I felt like I could have helped out a lot.”
A (sort of) fresh prediction: I predicted the Big Ten tournament from the quarterfinals on, with MSU meeting U-M in the final. Before you give me any credit, I also had Minnesota beating Wisconsin, and the Gophers gave perhaps the worst performance of any team this weekend in the quarterfinals against the Badgers.
But those predictions were made before seeing MSU and Michigan two more times each. I originally had Michigan 79-74 in the final. I still like the Wolverines, until MSU proves otherwise, but this has been an impressive couple of days from the Spartans, and I wouldn’t be surprised is MSU wins by 15, or loses by eight.
This is going to be a highly charged afternoon. I’ll stick with my original prediction.