The test of Keith Appling's career is near: being a senior at Michigan State.
Consider the three previous years as practice for the Keith Appling who should emerge this season.
Now a senior, the former Detroit Pershing star has evolved into one of the better guards—both defensively and offensively—in the Big Ten. More of a scorer than a distributor, his transformation into an ideal Tom Izzo point man hasn't been the smoothest ride.
"We told him in the spring you either change or I’m not going to play you at that position," Izzo told Sporting News.
Those are heavy words from a coach known for results. But they were necessary for the greater good.
Izzo holds his four-year players to an incredibly high standard. He covets veterans. His son's middle name is Mateen, an ode to Flintstone Mateen Cleaves, a legend who led the 2000 championship team.
Will Appling have a storied senior year?
Cherished by fans and teammates, elder Spartans typically set the tone for wild runs through March. They kiss center court at the Breslin Center, get their names chanted and shed a tear on Senior Day before being immortalized.
It happened to Cleaves, Draymond Green and Drew Neitzel.
Appling could, and should, be that type of star in 2013-14; it's his predetermined fate. Being a point guard only emphasizes his importance to Michigan State, which thrives with great ball-handlers calling the shots and running the tempo.
With lofty preseason expectations, Appling needs to be at full tilt in order to cash in the treasures of the Final Four.
Following the Script
It's not a guaranteed plan, but it's one that works: Get a strong point guard and watch the team flourish. It's worked in the past for Izzo, so if Appling has indeed advanced his game, this year's group should be no different.
Appling has a supporting cast that's similar to what Cleaves had in 2000, to what Neitzel had in 2005, and to what Kalin Lucas had in 2009. The Spartans made it to the Final Four in each of those three years, so that bodes well for Appling's senior offering.
Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Appling may make one of the best trios to play for Izzo.
Predicting success for this year isn't difficult; it's bound to happen. Izzo should be fine in the point guard department if Appling turns out to be half of what Cleaves was 13 years ago.
Looking at Stats
Appling has always been one to score in bunches. He'll get the occasional 20-point game, but he'll also have plenty of nights with 10 or less. He goes through a slight dip—but a dip nonetheless—and it happens toward the end of the season, which isn't the time to go cold.
For a visual, check out StatSheet.com. While reading the graph, a subtle but noticeable slide in Appling's late-season point production is illustrated, along with a nearly identical dip in field-goal percentage.
But there's more to the stats. As a sophomore, Appling averaged about 11 points per game in March. As a junior, he averaged just over 13. Izzo would probably be elated to get 15 a game this spring from Appling.
At this point, starting with a bang and going cold is a matter of opinion. Appling could drop 25 a night throughout the season and be a no-show in March. Or, he could be a steady 14-point man each night who's good for at least 12 in the tourney.
Izzo would probably choose the latter option. So would Spartans followers.
The following table shows approximations of Appling's stats in March that are based off StatSheet.com's trend charts. The numbers for 2013-14, are, of course, predictions.
Is an NBA Career Ahead?
Appling has to use his senior year to show that he can play point guard in the NBA. At 6'1", he certainly won't be a shooting guard, the position he grew up playing. If he doesn't limit his turnovers, he won't see a minute in the Association.
In an interview with the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, Izzo spoke of how Appling needed to balance his game, with specific mention of the 2012-13 season.
Some of the turnovers … they weren’t all Appling. The lack of assists was Appling. 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.
Over the summer, Izzo interviewed told Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner that Appling is a potential "next level" prospect, obviously referencing professional basketball but not necessarily the NBA. DraftExpress.com lists Appling as the No. 35 draft-eligible senior but questions Appling's ability to flourish as a pro.
There is no "next year" for Appling. This is it. If he has any sense of urgency—which he should—then Spartans followers should rest comfortably knowing that the team is in good hands. He's a Spartans senior, and they've proven reliable over the years.
Izzo makes sure of it. Appling has to keep up his end of the bargain.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81