ATLANTA — Bill Self’s team learned at least one thing Tuesday night.
“Michigan State’s not the best team to be finesse with,” Self said after his No. 7 Kansas squad fell 67-64 to the Spartans.
In a game molded directly from the NCAA tournament, the first game of the Champions Classic held at the Georgia Dome — the site of this season’s Final Four — the Jayhawks were unable to close out a game that, in many regards, was well within their grasp. Kansas led by five points with 5:02 remaining in a game that it had controlled throughout.
Then Keith Appling happened, and not even the Jayhawks’ athletic backcourt had an answer.
Michigan State’s sophomore guard, who struggled with his shot last season, poured in 16 of his 19 points in the second half, including his team’s last two buckets to claim the lead for good with 14 seconds left. Appling was the difference in the closing moments.
Through two games, it seems Appling’s shooting troubles will be far less pronounced in Year 2.
“He was not a very good shooter last year, as we all know,” Izzo said. “And he did the old-fashioned way: He locked himself in the gym this summer. He shot a lot more shots than he ever shot in his life.”
It paid off with an early-season top-10 win for the 21st-ranked Spartans (1-1).
But, yes, it’s very, very early.
It’s tough to tell where either team is truly at after this tight contest as both should look dramatically different in three or four months. There were struggles on both sides — turnovers plagued both teams — but this was a showcase of two squads learning to work without last season’s leaders.
Michigan State lost do-everything Draymond Green to the NBA, while Kansas (1-1) is working without All-American forward Thomas Robinson — the No. 5 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft — and point guard Tyshawn Taylor. In their stead, Self is trying to work in young playmakers who, at times, have shown flashes of being capable of carrying the load.
Ben McLemore comes to mind.
McLemore redshirted as a freshman last season following academic issues in high school, but was a former five-star shooting guard capable of putting up big numbers. Against the Spartans Tuesday, when McLemore was assertive, he was successful and efficient in equal measures. With his 6-foot-5 frame, he finished through contact on multiple occasions, finishing with 14 points, three rebounds and three assists.
But the Jayhawks need more.
“The guy’s a pretty efficient player, but seven shots for him is not enough,” Self said of his standout freshman’s performance. “He’s just so talented, he’s gonna learn. … He’ll get it. It’s gonna take a while, but he’ll get it.”
There were large stretches in the second half where if he wasn’t taking a breather on the bench, McLemore was hanging around the 3-point arc. That’s not what Kansas needs, especially in close ballgames. He’s too effective with the ball in his hands, staying active. His backcourt mates — Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Naadir Tharpe — are strong players, but do not possess the same scoring acumen. McLemore looks like he could be the key to the Jayhawks’ entire offensive identity.
After digesting his enormous potential, that’s not a bad place to be for fans in Lawrence, Kan., loss or no loss. Once — or if — McLemore figures out how to pick his spots in a tournament-like arena against a well-coached, tough team, he’ll be a headache for opposing coaches.
“Our freshmen (McLemore and Perry Ellis) are gonna be good, but they’re pretty green and naïve,” Self said. “They’re not the typical pair of freshmen that’s had a lot of exposure and worldly. They’ve been pretty sheltered as far as experiences. So this’ll be a great learning experience for them.”
But on this night, there was one player on the floor knowing what to do in close situations. After hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer, Appling got the matchup he wanted with Kansas center Jeff Withey and took him to the basket for a highlight-reel basket. It was the game’s final points. Game over.
“I knew I had to do whatever I do to get in the lane,” Appling said. “I just wanted to make a play for my team.”
Following the win, Izzo strolled up to the podium and told reporters to get back out to the court to watch the Kentucky-Duke showcase. He called his own win a wrestling match. He had a point: It was a knockdown, drag-it-out type of affair between two of the top programs in the country.
Sometimes, November is reminiscent of March.
“We’ve got a long ways to go with competing and understanding how to compete, mentally tougher and that kind of stuff,” Self said. “It’s new to them.”