Keith Appling is truly living up to the role of Michigan State point guard.
Now in the early stages of his final act with the Spartans, the former Detroit Pershing High shooting hero is developing into a Tom Izzo-approved ball-handler and just in time; he’s a senior who’s expected to contribute to a national championship run.
At 6’1” and 190 pounds, Appling is the pillar of his offense—it’ll go as far as he takes it and stand as he stands. That’s been the case since he took over for Kalin Lucas, who could tilt a game in the Spartans’ favor with just a few shots.
The same is true for Appling, a reliable veteran who’s showing an increased hunger and maturity. Through just eight games, he’s averaging a career-best 16.4 points and 5.3 assists per outing. Turnovers are down, and he’s knocking down 54 percent of his shots from the field, which is also a career high.
Comparing current players to those of the past gets a bit risky. The predecessor can’t be shortchanged due to a hot streak from a current player on a mammothly talented team—so this article won’t attempt to stack Appling up against Scott Skiles or Eric Snow in the all-time greatness department.
But a harmless straight-up, numbers-to-numbers, accolades-to-accolades comparison of senior years isn’t out of order.
The words “great passer” and “Michigan State” immediately command an image of Skiles, a former All-American who fueled the fiery early- to mid-1980s teams under Jud Heathcote.
As a senior, Skiles averaged a college-best 6.5 assists per game. That clip won’t be equaled by Appling, or anyone else for that matter. The 1985-86 season saw one of Michigan State’s legends essentially carry the program.
In 2000, Mateen Cleaves brought a rugged approach to sharing the ball. He either bulldozed a player in the paint, or he kicked the ball out to Morris Peterson or Charlie Bell. Sometimes, he did it all in one fell swoop.
Believe it or not, Cleaves’ career average of 6.6 assists per game is better than Skiles’ four-year mark (5.5 APG).
Lucas was a worthy passer, but as a senior in 2011, he chipped in with a career-low 3.4 assists per game. He never averaged more than five per game, either. That’s an unusual statistic because Lucas was most certainly an adequate point man, despite a career-ending slide.
Drew Neitzel, known for his toughness rather than finesse, averaged four assists per game as a senior.
The following table illustrates senior assist rates. Oddly enough, Skiles is the only Michigan State senior point guard to win conference player of the year honors. Cleaves won as a sophomore and junior; Lucas won as a sophomore.
|Dishing on Seniors|
|Player||Sr. Avg.||Career High|
|Cleaves||6.9||7.2 (SO/JR) *Back-to-back Big Ten POTY|
|Lucas||3.4||4.6 (SO) *Big Ten POTY|
|Skiles||6.5||6.5 (SR) *Big Ten POTY|
|Sports Reference, StatSheet (Skiles is only senior MSU PG to win B1G POTY)|
This is a purely subjective section. Gauging the "best" Spartans scoring point guard all depends on which style the grader prefers.
Aggressive and not afraid of contact, Cleaves set the standard in physical buckets.
Lucas was incredible in the lane. Ask Kansas.
Neitzel wasn't pretty, but he got shots to fall.
Skiles could do anything he wanted but earned his keep by getting to the line about seven times per game as a senior. He was a true do-all scorer.
Appling has a little flair and is an explosive, game-changing producer. His burst differs from Skiles' energy, but it's a noticeable trait that Spartans point guards seem to share. Lucas had it. Snow had it (average didn't show it).
It's just in their DNA.
Point guards aren't supposed to score. Points from them are a bonus. However, Izzo guards have often been kind to the scoreboard.
The following table chronicles our sample group's senior scoring averages.
|Points from the Vets|
|Appling||16.4||16.4 (SR), 13.9 (JR)|
|Sports Reference, StatSheet|
Flash the Resume
Skiles only went to the Sweet 16. Lucas experienced the Final Four and went to the national championship game.
Neitzel went to the Final Four. Snow's team was ousted by Weber State during the first round of the 1995 tournament.
Cleaves won it all and set the Final Four trend into place.
Appling fired off nine points in 90 seconds during Michigan State's first-round loss to UCLA in 2010. Thus far, other than a 16-point effort vs. Duke in the 2013 Sweet 16, he doesn't have a claim to fame when it comes to March and April rap sheets.
However, Appling can brag about being on the first No. 1 team since 2001. Not even Neitzel or Lucas headed a top-ranked team, which may come as a surprise given Michigan State's success under those two.
Based on pure point-guard skills, Appling probably won't go down as a historical great. But, he'll certainly leave a mark on Izzo's program. Destiny awaits, and if Appling fulfills the Spartans' mission of getting to the Final Four and national championship bout, he'll earn, at the very least, consideration as an era-great.
Extraordinarily tough, Appling should return to his scoring and passing ways relatively soon. He fell a few feet out of the air and suffered a hip pointer injury during his team's 79-65 loss on Dec. 4 to North Carolina. He's since returned to practice.
At some point, Cleaves, Lucas, Neitzel, Snow and Skiles each played with bumps and bruises. Cleaves' bum ankle didn't stop him from cutting down the nets in 2000. Lucas, who ruptured his Achilles, had gutsy performances during his senior year.
It'll take a lot more than a fall in December to throw Appling on the bench. Whether or not by trade, he's an Izzo 1.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81