Michigan State has all the tools to win a national championship. The Spartans have future pros, they have experience and they have a coach who has won before.
But they've just been missing one thing: a pass-first point guard.
Those aren't my words.
That has been Tom Izzo's message to Keith Appling, Michigan State's scoring guard, who has had to play point guard for three seasons. Earlier this month, Izzo told Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News: "We told him in the spring you either change or I'm not going to play you at that position."
That's quite the demand. And it's good coaching too.
It was probably an empty threat because Izzo knows he needs Appling in the starting lineup for the Spartans to be really good, and since he already has a solid shooting guard in Gary Harris.
But Izzo said it. He was probably convincing too. And according to Michigan State's coaching staff, Appling has gotten the message.
Izzo to DeCourcy:
He's started coming in watching film. It's hard to change that; that's one of the harder things to change. But watching practice now, he's just different. He's enjoying it. Most kids do enjoy great passes; you've scored all your life, or you wouldn't be at this level. I've really been pleased with his progress. Because he can guard anybody.
To Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated: "I think he is a much, much better point guard [after his work this spring and summer] and even a prospect at the next level."
And finally, assistant coach Dane Fife to Diamond Leung MLive.com:
I think Keith's going to be unbelievable. I don't know about Keith's numbers. I just know Keith the Michigan State basketball player is Keith 6.0. I'm just really excited because he's really changed who he is over the course of the year. I think from a player standpoint to the way he lives his life to the way he goes about things, he's so much more mature.
This sounds like a transformation; and the Spartans do need to change, at least slightly, to contend for a title.
The defense was good enough a year ago and rarely does Izzo not have a defense that isn't good enough. The offense, however, was just a few ticks behind.
Izzo's main concern—and what he's trying to get across to Appling—was that his team's lack of assists was alarming. As Izzo pointed out to DeCourcy, the Spartans had more turnovers (489) than assists (474).
"That was a ridiculous stat for a top-10 team," Izzo said. "Inexcusable."
Were Appling's turnover numbers too high to be a championship-caliber point guard? Not exactly.
Take a look at assist and turnover rates for the last 10 points guards on national title teams and how they compared to Appling's junior season.
|Ast. Rate||TO Rate|
|Peyton Siva (Louisville)||34.3||24.0|
|Marquis Teague (Kentucky)||25.5||23.7|
|Kemba Walker (UConn)||28.0||11.6|
|Jon Scheyer (Duke)||25.8||11.4|
|Ty Lawson (UNC)||35.6||14.4|
|Russell Robinson (Kansas)||22.5||26.2|
|Taurean Green (Florida)||18.9||23.1|
|Taurean Green (Florida)||24.4||24.3|
|Raymond Felton (UNC)||34.6||26.7|
|Taliek Brown (UConn)||32.5||26.7|
|Keith Appling (2012-13)||20.6||18.6|
*Stats via KenPom.com (subscription needed).
From a statistical standpoint, Michigan State could overcome Appling's assist and turnover numbers, just as Kansas and Florida did with Russell Robinson and Taurean Green.
It's not as important to harp on the turnover numbers because almost any point guard who controls the ball a lot is going to turn it over occasionally.
"Some of the turnovers … they weren't all Appling. The lack of assists was Appling," Izzo told DeCourcy. "He didn't take 90 shots a game, but it's just the thought process. It wasn't a selfish thing, the shots he took.
"Keith wasn't as turnover-prone, but he wasn't as assist-prone. He isn't taking a lot of shots, but he wasn't driving thinking about making somebody else better. Because he can get in the lane anytime."
That's why it is worthwhile to keep an eye on Appling's assist rate this coming season, because to become a top-tier offense, Appling does need to create more for his teammates.
And what makes the Spartans worthy of a high preseason ranking is the untapped potential of Harris and Adreian Payne.
Harris shot 41.1 percent from three last season and was the Big Ten's freshman of the year. He did so with a nagging shoulder injury.
Payne is one of the most talented power forwards in the country, but he's not always as aggressive as he should be. He shot 38.1 percent from beyond the arc and was one of the best finishers in the country at the rim, shooting 80 percent (via Hoop-Math.com), yet he averaged only 10.5 points per game.
How does Michigan State get more out of Payne? It would help if Appling used his slashing ability to set up the big man.
Can Michigan State win the national championship with Keith Appling at point guard?
"Gary Harris should not have to work on every single play off a screen or from the NBA line and getting two dribbles," Fife told Leung. "He shouldn't have to do that. He should have a great point guard. Branden Dawson the same way. Adreian Payne the same way. And that's one thing Keith has really worked on is how do I get my teammates easy shots?"
Appling is talented enough to make that happen, but does he have the ability? Those are two different things. You have to see and think the game a certain way.
Appling, for instance, had what could be considered a decent game against Duke in the Sweet 16 loss. He scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting and made all five of his free throws.
But he also had zero assists, and Payne and Harris combined to go 5-for-21 from the field.
For the Spartans to be great, Appling will need to be as concerned about their stats as he is about his own.
And if Michigan State's coaches have truly transformed his approach, then contending for a title is a real possibility.