When MSU jumped out to a 4-0 start in the Big Ten, Keith Appling made Spartan fans and Tom Izzo forget all about Korie Lucious, who was supposed to be the point guard this season before being suspended and transferring late last season.
In his first season as the point guard, Appling had rebounded from a slow start to average 17.5 points, 5.5 assists and two turnovers in the Spartans' first four Big Ten games, hitting at least half of his shots in three of those games.
After defeating Iowa on Jan. 10 — a game in which Appling had nine assists and no turnovers, Izzo said he wouldn't trade Appling to get Lucious back. But since those words, Appling has struggled.
The Spartans have gone 5-3 over the last eight games. In that time, Appling has averaged 10.3 points on 34 percent shooting from the field. His assist-to-turnover numbers are 28/27. While the Spartans picked up a huge win over Ohio State on Saturday, Appling shot 4-for-10 and had zero assists to seven turnovers while being harassed by Aaron Craft all night.
No one expected MSU to be tied atop the Big Ten standings midway through February, but if the Spartans want to finish the season at the top, they're going to need Appling to turn things around.
Struggles were expected from Appling, making the transition to starting point guard from backup shooting guard last season. He didn't record a single assist in the first two games against North Carolina and Duke. But as the nonconference season wore on, he began to figure things out, and he led MSU to the 4-0 start in the Big Ten.
Since then, defenders have gotten more physical with Appling, and he hasn't been able to handle it, culminating with Craft's performance Saturday.
Next up is Jordan Taylor, who isn't having the best season, but remains perhaps the top point guard in the Big Ten (and definitely the strongest. Look at those guns). When the Spartans and Badgers met in January, both point guards shined on the offensive end. Appling scored 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting, while Taylor scored 28 on 7-for-11 shooting. But Taylor was all alone, and Draymond Green's 18 points helped give MSU the three-point victory in overtime.
Usually the strongest part of his game, Appling was a mess defensively against the Badgers. Taylor shot 16 free throws (making 12) as Appling couldn't defend without fouling. Appling gets some rest before the Badgers come to town Thursday, but MSU has five games in the second half of February. There won't be any more time to rest.
Since starting the Big Ten season at 1-3, the Badgers have gone 7-1 and sit one game behind MSU and Ohio State in the Big Ten standings. Taylor's help has shown up, and the Badgers are positioned where they seem to be every year.
As big as the Ohio State win was, the Spartans still have an uphill climb for the Big Ten championship with a tough schedule remaining. If that goal — which seemed so lofty before the season — is to be reached, the Spartans are going to need Appling to get back to his early January form.