Wisconsin's Poison Apple

Junior guard Keith Appling

Over the last six meetings against Wisconsin, junior guard Keith Appling has had a field day against the Badgers' defense, and looks to do so against tonight at the Breslin Center.

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Whenever Wisconsin appears as the next game on Michigan State's schedule, senior guard Keith Appling can't help but get a little excited.

Why? He knows he's about to play one of his better games.

"I just love playing against Wisconsin," Appling said. "Each year they have competitive guards that push me and make me better, so I just look at it as a challenge. These past couple years it's worked out in my favor and my team's favor."

There's little debate that Appling has been a huge thorn in Wisconsin's side over the past three years. In six career games against Wisconsin, Appling is averaging 13.2 points, shooting 46.3 percent from the field, including 17.0 points in his last four games.

In the most recent meeting, two days after he was named a team captain, Appling scored a game-high 19 points in a 49-47 victory in Madison. He also added six rebounds, two assists, two steals and committed only one turnover in a game-high 39 minutes.

That adds to his 2012 performances against Wisconsin: scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half and overtime (11 of which came after Draymond Green picked up his fourth foul); leading the Spartans with 20 points against UW in East Lansing and adding 13 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

"I've seen Keith getting better; that's why he's a captain," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "He always worked hard enough to be one. I don't like the ‘lead by example' kind of guys. I need guys that are dragging people with them. He's starting to embrace that a little bit more and realize how important that is."

Not only does Appling ranks second on the Spartans with 13.2 points per game, he leads the team in assists (3.8 per game) and has established himself as one of the top defenders in the conference. More importantly he's developed as a leader.

One day after being named a captain and the night before the January Wisconsin game, Appling was part of a team meeting to emphasize how important a win at the Kohl Center would be for the team's title aspirations. Before the game, Appling said his goal was to do play hard and keep his teammates involved.

"I wanted to do what I usually do," Appling said.

He did, leading the Spartans to their second straight road win in Madison.

"He's been real good all year long," said Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close. "He's one of the best guards and he can beat you all by himself. We usually have a handful with him. He's been a very important part of the team and has helped them win a lot of games."

When No. 22 Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5 Big Ten) plays at No. 10 Michigan State (22-7, 11-5) tonight, the loser will be eliminated from the Big Ten title race. A Spartans loss means Michigan State would miss out on a fourth conference title since 2009.

If Wisconsin loses, the Badgers miss out on the top seed in the conference tournament and would be in danger of playing on the first day of the conference tournament for the first time since 2000.

Both teams are coming in on unusual circumstances. The Badgers lost a puzzler at home to sub.500 Purdue at home while Michigan State has lost three straight games, the latest a one-point loss to rival Michigan after Appling had to ball stolen away from him by player of the year candidate Trey Burke in the final seconds.

That clouded over his efforts in the final four minutes, forcing a pair of turnovers and hitting a couple free throws to bring the Spartans back from a 10-point deficit.

"I'm good to go," said Appling. "It's the homestretch, winning time, March Madness, no time for me not to have my legs under me. I just have to stay in the gym and stay consistent, getting the reps."

He should be excited. His favorite team to play against is next on the schedule.

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