EAST LANSING - For the second straight exhibition game at Michigan State, it was a freshman who dominated post-game buzz.
Last week, rookie post player Adreian Payne juiced up the playing group with above-the-rim explosiveness.
This week, first-year point guard Keith Appling delivered the "wow" factor, as he produced 15 points and 7 rebounds during the Spartans' 102-72 victory over Nebraska-Omaha, Monday night at Breslin Center.
The No. 2-ranked Spartans will begin their regular season schedule on Friday against Eastern Michigan, at Breslin.
As for Monday night, Payne's numbers were actually better than they were a week ago. He had a team-high 13 rebounds to go with 7 points. But Appling produced numbers and athletic highlights while packaged within a controlled, high-IQ style of play that belies his youth and inexperience.
This comes a week after Appling, who was Michigan Mr. Basketball last year while at Detroit Pershing High, scored 12 points against Saginaw Valley State.
"I don't know if he is ahead (of where I thought he would be)," head coach Tom Izzo said of Appling. "He's not behind, that's for sure."
Beyond all the pretty shooting, scoring, driving, crossovers and finger-rolls, Appling impressed Izzo on the glass, and with grit. He attacks those aspects of the game like a less-talented role player. But this worker packs superstar talent.
"He's really tough," Izzo said of Appling, giving him perhaps the head coach's ultimate compliment. "He'll go in there and rebound."
Appling had two offensive rebounds, both of which he converted for put-back field goals.
"He'll guard Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas in practice," Izzo said. "He is going to be a great defender as he continues to grow."
More compliments, reserved only for Izzo's royalty.
"He is a phenomenal athlete," Izzo said.
We saw that when he went up like a smaller Mo Ager and finished an alley-oop dunk from Korie Lucious, zooming in from the left wing.
"He can jump," Izzo said. "He has quickness to the ball. He shoots it well."
Try 6-of-8 from the field, including 1-of-2 from 3-point range. His 3-pointer came on a baseline in-bound play run specifically for him, and he delivered on the catch-and-shoot opportunity with the smooth look of a veteran, 1,000-point scorer.
Later, he used a high ball screen, drove the lane with top-shelf quickness and finished with a pretty finger-roll.
He closed out his scoring with a shot fake from the left wing, followed by one dribble to the baseline before rising up and nailing a silky 16-footer.
His efficiency resurrected some of the ingredients he showed at Breslin 20 months ago when he scored 49 points as a junior for Detroit Pershing in the Class A state title game, the most ever by a Michigan high schooler in the biggest game in the state's biggest division.
"I think Keith has a chance to be one of the great guards here," Izzo said.
Izzo usually reserves those comments for underrated players in their second or third year, players who maybe aren't getting all of the attention they deserve. Rarely, or perhaps never, has Izzo heaped those kind of words onto a freshman who has yet to play a regular season game. Izzo went so far as to compare Appling to his best rebounding guard ever.
"I keep saying he has some Charlie Bell in him," Izzo said, "in that he is tough and he goes to the boards and he can run like a deer."
Appling played exclusively at the wing, Monday night. He can shoot it from range, off the bounce or off the pass. He can create his own shot at medium range, or finish with a blast.
His ability to sprint and score gives him the potential to be as dangerous a wing runner as Izzo has had: Ager, Bell, Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson. He doesn't have the length and power of JRich or MoPete. But he can do something none of those guys could when they were teen-agers: He can play the point, drive and create for others. MSU didn't need him to do it against Nebraska-Omaha, but that card is in Izzo's hand.
Usually Izzo is busy de-recruiting, programming and Spartan-izing freshmen who have the lofty credentials of a Keith Appling. He usually has to get such freshmen to understand that defense is half the game, and the need to value the ball, work and grind to secure rebounds. But not Mr. Appling.
"He is a little ahead of where I thought he would be because I didn't know how good he would be on defense or how good a rebounder he was or how tough he was," Izzo said, pretty much reciting the Izzo brand trifecta. "He's pretty good in all three areas. He doesn't look like a freshman when he plays or when he practices."
Attention national pundits: Many of you were a year or two late in beginning to recognize Lucas as being among the top four or five point guards in the country during the middle stages of his career here at Michigan State. Heading into the 2010-11 season, it's fashionable to pump Duke's Kyrie Irving, Texas's Cory Joseph, Kentucky's Brandon Knight and Kansas's Josh Selby as the top of the nation's freshman point guard crop. Appling won't start at Michigan State this year, but Mr. Izzo wouldn't trade his guy for any of them. Monday night, we began seeing why.
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