By Mick Vaught – special to heinnews

Toughness is a skill and an attribute that not even Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo can teach his players. You either have it or you don’t. And according to Izzo, Keith Appling, the freshman guard out of Detroit’s Pershing High School, is tough enough.

“I think Keith Appling has one ingredient that separates him, he’s a tough kid,” Izzo said. “Very few kids come in with two qualities. Very few kids come in tough enough and very few come in that will guard people. He has both.”

Appling had a chance to exhibit that toughness early in his freshman season and continues to use it to his advantage. He made his first career start against Oakland on December 11, 2010 and Izzo stated that Appling has been willing to guard whoever gets put in front of him, big or small. His defensive toughness may have been what earned him the starting role at Michigan State, but while at Pershing, Appling was known for his scoring ability.

The Michigan native tallied 49 points to lead Pershing to the state title in 2009 and in 2010 he averaged 28 points a game on his way to being named Mr. Basketball for the state of Michigan. He was also named to the McDonald’s All-America team where he got a chance to play with many of the freshmen who were with him at the USA Basketball U18 workouts this past summer.

While with the USA Basketball U18 team he had the chance to practice and work alongside elite players like Duke freshman Kyle Irving as well as Vander Blue of Marquette, and although he did not make the final team he still gained from the opportunity.

“The whole USA experience was great,” Appling told heinnews. “I felt like I was a part of the real USA team with Carmelo and Kobe so it was great. Playing with the USA team it helped me realize that sometimes you’ve got to change your role. You can’t always come in and want to shoot the ball every time. You’ve got to do other things that are going to help your team win.”

The lessons Appling learned with USA basketball have paid off, as his basketball identity has changed now that he is with the Spartans. Though he still has his chances to score – he tallied eight points in a 65-62 win over the Northwestern Wildcats on January 3, 2011 – Appling has become a much more defensive-minded player.

“He knows we want to get him shots,” Izzo told heinnews after the win over Northwestern. “But he knows he’s not going to score 30 a game either. I like Keith in the lineup, he made some big shots today. He’s got a big heart and he’s not afraid of anybody or anything.”

Appling’s fearlessness showed in the Northwestern game as he went up against some of the Wildcats best players. Whether it was forward John Shurna or guard Michael Thompson, Appling stepped up and displayed his speed, hustle, and most importantly toughness as he dove for a loose ball and his solid defense which was key in what turned out to be a much closer contest than expected.

In front of a packed and divided Welsh-Ryan Arena, Appling did not come up big on the scoreboard, but a glance at the box score provides a glimpse of the toughness that makes Appling a prize in Izzo’s eyes.

Appling collected five rebounds, two assists, one steal and a surprising game high five blocks. For a 6’1” guard five blocks is no easy task, but it is a testament to his speed on the court and his ability to find other ways to make an impact.

“Scoring isn’t as important now, I just want to win and win a national championship,” Appling said. “Whatever it is I’m going to keep doing it to stay in the lineup.”

Photo by USA BasketballWhile with the U18 team Appling had a chance to work with some of the best coaches in the business, including Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech and Butler head coach Brad Stevens. However, he stated that Izzo is different from the coaches he was with this summer.

“Coach Izzo he’s a lot harder on his players because he expects a lot out of us,” Appling said. “When we don’t do what he expects of us then he’ll chew us out.”

On a guard-heavy Michigan State team the young Appling is learning on the fly and earning his chances. Appling said that his time spent watching film and the help of teammates and coaches has made his transition easier than he expected.

Who better to learn from than senior guard Kalin Lucas who was one of the leaders on last season’s Final Four team.

“I’m adjusting to being off the ball and playing alongside another great point guard,” Appling said.

Izzo has confidence in Appling’s ability to grow as a basketball player and to become a star at Michigan State. But until then it looks as if Appling’s toughness will be what sets him apart as a player.

Appling hopes to be invited back next year to the U19 team, but by then it won’t be his shooting that sets him apart. It’ll be the fact that even at a young age Appling is unafraid to do the dirty work and could become one of the toughest players out there. Izzo already believes he is the toughest player on his own team. Appling is tough no question.

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