By Adam Biggers
A confident coach, along with a confident star player, will likely bode well for the fifth-ranked, No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans, who sit atop the West Region bracket, have LIU-Brooklyn as their first opponent at 9:20 p.m. Friday in Columbus, Ohio—a team that likes to run the court, just like Michigan State.
Michigan State sophomore guard Keith Appling is comfortable with the task of keeping up with the Blackbirds, who are coming off back-to-back NEAC titles. Furthermore, he's comfortable with doing the same against teams like Missouri, which is the No. 2 team in the West.
"I like the fast-paced game, because it's a lot more fun to be a part of," Appling said during a recent interview. "Lot of up-and-down, very fast-paced. There's going to be a lot of easy opportunities to get baskets on the fast break."
Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who was recently named CBS Sports' Coach of the Year, is also confident with his team's speed and ability to run the floor. Having Appling in charge makes things a little easier.
"…For the most part, with Keith, I think we can push it now, he's getting to the point where he can push it and make decisions when he gets down there, something (freshman guard) Travis (Trice) has to keep working on," Izzo said.
"Keith's learning how to pull it out, and that's going to be important, too, because there are teams that run better than we do that are in this group. If we face them, we're going to have to figure out how to do that under control.
"But I still say getting some easy baskets, getting some shots, we're really looking at getting the ball into the first post more, off our break, instead of just getting wide-open shots or layups. And if you keep your big guys running, and we think we have two or three that we can rotate in there, the advantage goes to us."
LIU-Brooklyn coach Jim Ferry knows his team will be backed against a wall Friday. And he's OK with that. The Blackbirds coach said during a recent interview that he is willing to fight fire with fire—or in this case, speed with speed, when it comes to matching up with the Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament champion Spartans.
"We have to be able to compete with them on the glass so we can get our transition game going," Ferry said. "There's no question about it.
"If we can get the game going in transition a little bit, then I think we're going to put some pressure on them. We play at one of the highest tempos in college basketball period. We average 85 points a game in league and 82 overall. We're one of the fastest teams up and down the court. We got to get them to play that way. We do."
One has to like Ferry's statement. Sure, a 16th-seeded team isn't regularly viewed as a threat—and that couldn't be more true when it's set to collide with Michigan State, a team which many feel could land in the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans.
But, and there is a "but," the Spartans are far above any competition LIU-Brooklyn faced this season. And with Izzo ready for March—and one of his star players eager to take the court—the Blackbirds are ripe for an ousting.
Appling has elite-level speed. Not to say LIU-Brooklyn has no shot of containing him, but once the former Detroit Pershing High star gets going, he's hard to stop—that goes for any team, Missouri included.
Expect the first half Friday to be back-and-forth. That much is inevitable. Michigan State averaged about 72 points per game in the Big Ten—a conference not known for overly fast-paced action. LIU-Brooklyn has the tools to keep the game close in the first 20 minutes.
However, the Spartans have tournament experience. And that's not just a reference to past NCAA Tournaments. Look back to their win at Gonzaga, a victory that was considered to be of tournament-caliber. Although some pieces are young, Michigan State has an experienced senior in Draymond Green and Austin Thornton, both of whom have been to the Final Four.
Looking past any opening-round opponent is never a good idea. But in this case, doing so wouldn't be out of the question. Michigan State's firepower, accompanied by its leadership and experience, should make light work of the Blackbirds on Friday night.