EAST LANSING - Junior guard and captain Keith Appling showed his maturity, focus and true understanding of the significance of No. 8 Michigan State's game against No. 4/5 Michigan by artfully dodging bulletin board material questions about whether he was better than U-M's Trey Burke, about whether U-M was better than MSU (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten) and about hatred of your rival.
Instead, Appling, admitted a different feeling playing against Michigan (21-3, 8-3) as a junior as opposed to the first time he had a significant role in the course of a series that has seen MSU win 10 of the last 15 but has also seen the Wolverines capture three of the last four matchups.
MSU's leading scorer, at 14.1 points a game, going into Tuesday's 9 p.m. showdown (ESPN) at Breslin Center chose to concentrate on the excitement surrounding a game that will not only have conference implications but national and NCAA seeding implications.
"I think this place is going to be rocking,'' he said. "Everybody's going to be out of their seats and cheering from start to finish. It should fun and fun environment.''
Despite politically correct answers like that, Appling still politely fielded questions that could be answered the wrong way.
But when asked about what he knew about Burke though, he did exhibit some of the fire you would expect the night before a rivalry game.
"He plays for Michigan. That's about all I know,'' Appling said, with the beginnings of a smile starting to come across his face. "He's another one on the scouting report. I don't really get into one-on-one matchups or who I'm guarding. At the end of the day, it's a team sport and you're going to have to rely on your teammates to help you just as much as anybody.''
Appling did pay homage to the Wolverines backcourt of Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas when he was told that teammate and fellow captain Derrick Nix refused to acknowledge the Wolverines guards as the best backcourt in the country, let alone in the Big Ten.
"They're very explosive. They're great scorers and they do a lot of things for their team, so it's all going to come down to us being able to get stops on the defensive end.''
Getting those stops and giving MSU the best chance to win will also depend on Appling's ability to keep himself out of foul trouble in the first half.
The 6-foot-1 Detroit native has had some issues with fouls early in games recently. Issues that have cost him valuable minutes in the first half of games where MSU has noticeably struggled in areas without him on the floor.
"I can't get in early foul trouble and be on the bench because that's going to hurt our team. So I've got to pick and choose when and when not to foul, so I can keep myself available for my teammates out there.''
Even more than his play, will be his leadership on the floor. Something that will be more difficult to do if he is on the bench with two fouls early in Tuesday's game.
Each and every time we play Michigan, it's just a different level of everything. The guys play harder, the guys focus in more. That just goes to show what this rivalry means to us.''
UNDERSTANDING THE SIGNIFICANCE: While freshman guard Gary Harris was quick to acknowledge that he may not fully appreciate the stakes of his first Michigan State-Michigan rivalry game, he was just as quick to point out that he does have pretty good understanding of what an in state rivalry is all about.
Growing up in a household where your mother once starred for the Purdue women's basketball team gave Harris some insights on instate rivalries.
So while Harris may not have the same kind of appreciation of the rivalry someone like fellow freshman Denzel Valentine had growing up with a father like Carlton who played in the rivalry as a member of MSU's teams from 1985-88, don't think the Spartans' leader in 3-point field goals made and attempted hasn't bought in to the significance of Tuesday's game.
"Yes, it's definitely my first experience with the rivalry but I grew up with Indiana-Purdue my whole life so I'm sure this will probably be something similar to that, just two teams that are going to go at each other.''
And Harris wasn't ready to surrender to the idea that he wouldn't have a sense of the significance of a game like this one until he actually played in an MSU-U-M game.
"No, I wouldn't say that. Just being around the players, the guys who grew up in Michigan, it's such a big deal to them, so it just carries over in practice and that just gives me a better feeling of how big it really is. There's been nothing specific (said) but you can just sense it. Nobody has really had to say anything.''
While Harris may or may not share the same intense approach as some of his state of Michigan teammates, he will be bringing something added knowledge to the game.
The last three teams MSU has faced - Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois - all run three-guard offenses.
For Harris, and hopefully his teammates, the knowledge gained from playing against teams whose offenses are concentrated on the perimeter should be beneficial in defending the Wolverines' four-guard sets.
"I think it's going to help us out because we do a lot of switching between the 3 and the four. Just getting yourself set up in good lateral position and the training we've been going through in preparation for the last three games we were going through. So I think it will good for people like AP (Adreian Payne) who's at the 4 and has been asked to guard some guards these last few games.''
DOUBLE DUTY: Speaking of Adreian Payne and some of the defensive switches he will need to adjust to in Tuesday's game out on the perimeter, the 6-10 forward is probably going to face just as much of a challenge on defenses will sophomore wing Branden Dawson.
While neither Payne or Dawson is expected to end up in one-one situations with Burke, Payne's defensive responsibilities could require him to check a guard during one portion of a Wolverine possession before ending up defensively in the post.
"Michigan, they've got some really versatile athletes. Guys that can shoot from the perimeter but also play down low. But we won't be switching that much, where I'm guarding a 1 or maybe even a 2 but I could be matched up with either a 3 or a 4. It'll just depend on who's in there. We don't want Burke to end up against (Derrick) Nix, so we'll just try and shrink the court and have him shoot a step-back 3 (instead of letting him penetrate to the basket).''
While the Wolverines are expected to have more of an advantage on the perimeter because of their style of play, you could also argue that MSU will have an advantage down low with Payne, Dawson and Nix.
"I think that's what we're going to have to do just like Michigan is probably going to try and take their advantages on the perimeter and try and penetrate and kick on us. So it goes both ways. They have advantages and we have advantages just like they have disadvantages and we have disadvantages. We just need to have more advantages than disadvantages.''
One added advantage for MSU could come from Payne, out on the perimeter.
While most of his points come inside the paint, part of his improvement this season has come from his development of a 3-point shot. Payne has hit 7-of-13 3-pointers this season and is shooting 53 percent from beyond the arc. And if given the chance, he will unleash his developing outside game against Wolverines.
"If it comes to it and I'm open, I'll take it.''
TRICE STILL DOUBTFUL: There may have been some thought that sophomore guard Travis Trice could be cleared to play against U-M after sitting out two games with a head injury but MSU coach Tom Izzo didn't seem optimistic on having the 6-foot guard in his rotation.
And while he was resigned to the idea that he might not have Trice for a third straight game, in what could be considered MSU's biggest game of the season, Izzo admitted not having Trice as a sub might hurt MSU, especially when you're talking about backcourt depth against a team who's success is predicated on their guard play like it is with Michigan.
"Does it play a factor? It plays a big factor. Of all the people I'd rather not be missing it's probably him. That might sound strange to some of you but of my guys coming off the bench, we're just thin at the guard position. That's something we got to make up for and I think Valentine did a very good job at Purdue coming in as a point guard. But you have not only offensive responsibilities you have defensive responsibilities and I think that's where we're missing Trice. I'd say it's very, very questionable that he's gonna play. I'm not overly optimistic, put it that way."
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