NEW YORK — Keith Appling became a polarizing figure for Michigan State fans late in this basketball season.
That continues today, as emails, tweets and comments continue to mostly center around the Spartans’ senior point guard, who was a limited offensive player the last two months, Sunday’s season-ending regional final loss to Connecticut included.
What happened to Appling — however much of it psychological or physical — was a shame for him. It looked like he was headed for a brilliant senior year, and wound up being largely the reason MSU felt short.
Two thoughts on this:
- No one should question how much Appling cared. No one cared more. No one feels worse than him. He didn’t let you down, frustrating as it may be. That’s not how this works.
- Travis Trice wasn’t the better option at point guard Sunday. He struggled to bring the ball up against UConn’s three-quarter-court pressure from guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier. This is one of those things that separates point guards — the ability to create space and keep a dribble in front of pressure. It’s something Appling does well. Even this Appling. Sunday’s Appling gave MSU a better shot at offense than Sunday’s Trice. And it’s something Trice has to work on in the offseason.
Tender moment between Payne, Chapman:
There was a moment at the end of Sunday’s game that showed the genuine friendship between MSU seniors Adreian Payne and Dan Chapman — one a future NBA power forward, the other a former walk-on, playing his final game.
With less than a second remaining, and the Spartans headed for a crushing defeat, Chapman banked in a 3-pointer. Payne instinctually ran over to Chapman, smiled and hugged him.
“The past four years, AP and I developed a pretty good friendship,” Chapman said. “And I think that kind of summed it up right there. Even in the darkest of moments, you’ve still got your friend coming over there congratulating you on something that should make you feel better than it did, obviously given the scenario. It definitely meant a lot to me.”
A whiff on analyzing MSU’s matchup with Connecticut:
Beforehand, Connecticut seemed like the ideal Elite Eight opponent for MSU — an inexperienced coach, a team that preferred a quick pace, MSU’s preferred pace, and one without much bulk on the interior.
It turned out not to be so simple.
UConn second-year head coach Kevin Ollie put together a terrific game plan, giving Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson no room to work in the post. It’s what he said he wanted to do — make it uncomfortable for them early.
What I didn’t realize is that his wiry and quick interior players were a worthy answer for MSU’s interior duo. They were athletic enough to double-team without leaving obvious holes and able to recover when Payne pump-faked and drove.
Just as impressively, they kept Dawson off the glass. No one had done that during the previous six games, or most of the season for that matter. When it had happened, it was usually a no-show performance from Dawson. Sunday, Dawson made the effort.
Lastly, the low score wasn’t indicative of the frenzied urgency or ball-pressure, which UConn handled better for much of the game. The Huskies are a great story, a program emerging from NCAA sanctions, with loyal senior guards unwilling to be done. That shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should Ollie, or the pieces he has at his disposal.
That said, MSU could have won this game, and changed the narrative. Turnovers in bunches did the Spartans in. The loss is as much on them as UConn. That’ll make it harder to stomach and more lasting.