EAST LANSING, Mich. — Keith Appling has nearly limitless potential.
He was a McDonald’s All-America and Mr. Basketball for Detroit Pershing High School, and wasted little time in becoming a factor in the Michigan State starting lineup. He plays ultra-tight defense and was one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten last season.
But one important ingredient for all-around greatness is missing for Appling. The junior guard has a modest 11.4 scoring average.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo called Appling into his office after last season to prod him about it.
“That got to me, and last year was disappointing for me shooting-wise,” Appling said. “So I decided to do something about it. Every day since April, I would come into the Breslin Center and shoot until I made 500 3-pointers.
“Before practices started (in October), I was doing it in 30 to 45 minutes. But at first, it took me a lot longer than that. My shooting percentage (.250 for 3-pointers) was not what I wanted it to be. I want to be 45 percent or somewhere around that.”
Michigan State fans will soon get their chance to see the results of making 3,500 3-pointers a week. The 14th-ranked Spartans open the regular season on Friday against unranked Connecticut in the Armed Forces Classic. The game (5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) will be played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The Spartans will wear green camouflage uniforms similar to those worn in last year’s opener against North Carolina, which was played on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson. Spartans players will visit the USO Warrior Center and a medical center on Wednesday, and get an opportunity to fly in a C-130 Hercules cargo plane and visit a children’s clinic Thursday.
“I’ve never been in Germany, and I’m looking forward to it.” Appling said before departing Tuesday. “At the end of the day, it’s why we come here to Michigan State — to play in all these great games.”
Appling averaged 10 points in the recent exhibition victories over Northwood (Fla.) and St. Cloud State, and his 2-for-7 shooting on 3-pointers didn’t exhibit much early improvement there. He did average 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds in those games.
Izzo said he liked combining Appling (6-foot-1) and backup point guard Travis Trice (6-0) in the backcourt at the same time in the exhibitions, and could play them together quite a bit against the Huskies.
New coach Kevin Ollie, who replaced Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, started three guards — 6-0 Ryan Boatright, 6-1 Shabazz Napier and 6-5 Omar Calhoun — in the final exhibition against UMass-Lowell.
Izzo’s also enthusiastic about playing centers Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne at the same time. The Spartans will mix-and-match based on opponents and have the defensive ability to play with anyone.
“Adreian can block anybody’s shot, and we have a lot of guards who can play defense,” Appling said. “We look at us like a fist — ball it up and hit someone — and it’s powerful.”
For a player who averaged 28.1 points as a senior in high school and scored 49 in a state-title game as a junior, it’s interesting that going nose-to-nose with his back to the basket is what lights up Appling.
“At the end of the day, defense will win the game,” Appling said. “Offense sells the tickets. I just take pride in defense because I am a competitor. It frustrates me to see my opponent score.
“I’m a cool, laid-back guy. But I’m an animal when I get between those lines.”
Appling then nodded in the direction of the Breslin court.
He was the recipient of MSU’s Best Defensive Player Award last season and has acquired quite a reputation.
“Appling is the best defensive guard we’ve had since Eric Snow and Mateen Cleaves,” Izzo said of the two Spartans guards who combined to play 19 years in the NBA.
Appling said his all-time favorite players are Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson — big scorers who also got up in your grill.
Appling has half the formula for being a great all-around player down. He now strives to turn those 500 daily practice shots into scoring dividends, making him a complete player.