January 17, 2010

Appling, McCallum collide in a classic

LANSING - The feature game of the second annual Mr. Basketball Classic certainly was one. A classic, that is.

But the outcome of Detroit Country Day's 81-72 victory over Detroit Pershing did little to settle who should be named the state's top high school player at the end of the year.

However Ray McCallum's candidacy certainly was not hurt on this night.

McCallum scored 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including a breathtaking barrage in the third quarter to answer a furious Pershing comeback, as the state's No. 1-ranked team in Class B (Country Day) defeated the state's No. 1-ranked Class A team.

Michigan State commitment Keith Appling, the favorite to win Mr. Basketball ever since ending his junior year with a record-setting, legendary 49-point performance in the Class A state title game last year, scored 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting. He was 2-of-5 from the foul line.

The future Spartans went against a terrific array of Appling-centric defenses. Any time Appling tried to drive, he went 1-on-2 at the least, and usually 1-on-3.

Almost every time Country Day played man-to-man, the Yellow Jackets put junior defensive stopper Chris Fowler - not McCallum - on Appling. Fowler had a help defender at the ready, over each shoulder. When Appling tried to set up defenders with the dribble, Country Day helpers came at him to cut off avenues and contest shots, or slap at the ball. Usually, they influenced him to pass.

Country Day mixed in 2-3, 3-2 and 1-3-1 zone defenses from the second quarter on. The zones obstructed Appling's driving lanes, and also effectively got out on Appling to challenge him any time he sought to pull up and fire from deep.

Appling stayed within himself and refrained from the temptation to back up and shoot from NBA range. But perhaps he should have, because that's what his less-talented teammates kept doing.

Appling played the point most of the night, on offense. But when he brought the ball upcourt and passed to a teammate to initiate the offense, he almost never got the ball back. He was at the mercy of seeing teammates hoist missed 3-pointer after missed 3-pointer.

At the other end of the court, the resistance McCallum faced wasn't as airtight as the one Appling encountered. But McCallum didn't have it easy, either.

Appling picked up McCallum in 94 feet of man-to-man defense, all night long. Pershing often sent a trapping help defender at McCallum. When McCallum passed the ball and met his connection, Country Day often benefited with a high-percentage shot. But McCallum wasn't error-free. He finished the night with seven turnovers, including four in the third quarter, which fed Pershing's comeback.

Past Greats Watch A Future One

Following the game, Mateen Cleaves approached Appling, shook his hand, hugged him, pulled Appling close and spoke into the Detroiter's ear for about a minute. Appling nodded and nodded and nodded and nodded. Then they hugged again and Mateen went off into the night.

So, what did Cleaves tell the future Spartan?

"He said keep playing hard, continue being a dog out here on the court," Appling said.

Appling signed with MSU in November. He will enroll next summer.

Cleaves said he liked Appling's toughness, the way Appling plays under control, and his ability to find teammates with passes in the right spots. He told Appling there was nothing to hang his head about.

Perhaps the biggest compliment of all, coming from a rugged champ like Cleaves, the former Flintstone commended Appling for his tenacity.

Most of the night, when McCallum tried to drive left or right on Appling, Appling turned him away, all by himself.

There was one occasion when McCallum went past Appling with a right-to-left crossover dribble, and finished with a breathtaking scoop shot in the lane. Nice move by McCallum. But what would have happened if McCallum had come out 25 feet from the basket to guard Appling one-on-one? We never found out. Country Day's defense rarely required him to do it.

"In a perfect world, it would have been man-to-man with each player guarding the other," said Detroit Pershing graduate and Big Ten Network analyst Steve Smith, who watched the game at courtside. "But you also do what you have to do to win, and I respect that. Both players, Keith and Ray, were tremendous. They both have bright futures, and I suspect they'll be meeting again down the road, at the next level."

McAllum was offered a scholarship by Michigan State last summer, in case by any chance he wanted to come to East Lansing and emulate the Neitzel-Walton; Walton-Lucas; Lucas-Neitzel; Lucas-Lucious exchanges by joining Appling. McAllum politely declined. The 6-foot-1 McCallum is considering offers from the likes of Arizona, Florida, Kansas, UCLA, Detroit, Oklahoma and Michigan.

Appling acknowledged that Country Day's multiple defenses were a difficult challenge.

"It was pretty tough," Appling said. "Later on in the game, I had to figure it out for my team to get back into it."

The Classic Third Quarter

A crowd of more than 3,000 witnessed a tit-for-tat volley between Appling and McCallum in the third quarter that will be recalled by basketball fans in Mid-Michigan for years.

But first, let's rewind to the final minutes of the first half. Pershing trailed 35-20 when Country Day went back to the man-to-man defense they played for most of the first quarter. This time, Pershing seemed to find the right combination. They put the ball in Appling's hands and created space for him by clearing out in a low 1-4 set. This stretched help defenders away from Appling.

Appling threatened the drive, pulled up and hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 35-23.

On the next possession, McCallum guarded Appling, something McCallum did fewer than four or five times all night. And we found out why. Appling went behind his back with a dribble, drove the lane and scored while being fouled. Appling missed the free throw, but the lead was down to 37-25.

Country Day got out of that defense and finished the half with a 5-0 run, making it 42-25 at halftime.

Country Day didn't play man-to-man again the rest of the night, and McCallum didn't guard Appling at all in the second half. Instead, Country Day began the second half with a 1-3-1 zone, a flavor they hadn't shown in the first half.

But that's about when Pershing's defense took it up a level and began turning McCallum over. McCallum's second turnover of the half resulted in a 2-on-3 transition opportunity for Appling. Appling went between his legs with a dribble and then offered a sizzling hesitation move, getting into the lane for a bucket and a foul, cutting it to 45-32. Appling missed the free throw.

After a time out, McCallum turned it over again. Appling led another 3-on-2 fastbreak, drove into the lane, changed speeds, and hit a leaner to cut it to 45-36, causing hundreds of subway Pershing Doughboy fans to roar to life. Appling's future in East Lansing unquestionably led many locals to root for Pershing.

"It was kind of surprising because usually, most of our games, people don't cheer for Pershing," Appling said. "Michigan State fans are incredible. I go to Pershing, and we don't really have a big fan base. It was a surprise to me, but it was good for us."

Appling picked up McCallum in full-court man-to-man again. McCallum tried to drive past Appling. Appling shut him off, as he had several times in the first half. Then McCallum tried to split a trap, and turned it over again.

Appling led another transition opportunity. He went to the offensive glass, grabbed a board, attempted a step-through move. Missed. Then converted a put-back to cut the lead to 47-42. The 6-foot-1 Appling finished with 8 rebounds, 4 turnovers and 3 assists.

Then Pershing cut it to 47-44 on a pair of Kiedez Foster free throws.

And that's when McCallum woke up.

McCallum and Appling were each 3-of-7 from the field in the first half. Only one of those McCallum field goals were scored on Appling. On one occasion, Appling played off of him and settled into what he thought was supposed to be a Pershing zone (his teammates didn't follow suit). McCallum pounced on the opportunity, accelerated at blue chip speed for a right handed lay-up, showing high-end athleticism off the bounce.

That athleticism would be on display again in the third quarter. But first, McCallum heated up with a 3-pointer over Juwan Howard Jr. from the corner.

Appling tried to answer with a pull-up 3-pointer over McCallum, but missed.

Then McCallum attacked Appling off the dribble. He penetrated with a spin move, got Appling to bite on a shot fake, and finished with a crafty up-and-under, drawing aahs from a knowledgeable crowd.

This extended the lead back to 52-44. McCallum clapped in Appling's face at the other end, mimicking what Appling had done to McCallum two or three times in the first half after Appling had shut off McCallum drives on defense.

Now against a 3-2 zone, Appling fed Howard, and Howard nailed a 3-pointer to cut it to 52-47. It was one of the few times all night that Howard, usually an effectively streaky scorer, came through on offense.

Howard's triple caused Appling to clap in McCallum's face once again.

After Foster hit another 3-pointer for Pershing, McCallum penetrated against Appling with a right-to-left crossover, finishing with a strong leap and some sort of windmill scoop shot, worthy of an ESPN highlight reel. The crowd's approval roared louder in appreciation of McCallum's gutty answer to Appling's charge.

Then on Country Day's next possession, Appling hungrily came out at McCallum. McCallum issued another crossover to create room and busted a 3-pointer off a step-back move. That sent fans on both sides of the court stumbling all over one another in the type of excitement normally reserved for an And1 video. This rebuilt the lead to 57-50.

On the very next possession, Appling schemed for an answer in the final seconds of the third quarter. But he was called for a surprise five second violation while melting the clock.

In this scintillating third quarter, Appling scored 9. McCallum scored 10 straight.
"It was a time to step it up," McCallum said. "I knew I had to get the team going. They love Keith up here. This is his state. To be the underdog, I took it as a challenge. We don't get that much respect. There's been a lot of talk about who's the best in the state."
Appling indicated that guarding McCallum was not that big of a deal.
"It was nothing new to me," Appling said. "I go against good players all the time. Most of the teams we play, I check all the teams' best players, so it really wasn't that different to me."

After the game, Appling and McCallum offered each other nothing more than obligatory handslap in the handshake line. No hug, no pat on the back, no words.

"I just guard him like any other player in the state, there's not much difference between him and any other player I guarded this year," Appling said. "He doesn't really like to shoot the perimeter shot, so I could lay off of him a little bit."

Perimeter shooting is one of the few question marks about McCallum's game. But he sank 2-of-4 from long range in this game.

And The Rest Of The Story

Appling attempted only four field goals in the fourth quarter, canning two of them, while watching teammates miss on multiple occasions.

Sensing his team's chances slipping away, Appling became more physical, risking fouls, and getting away with excessive contact.

He used a Heisman move in driving past McCallum and penetrating Country Day's 3-2 defense and scoring in the lane while getting fouled by 6-foot-3 Jason Ray. The spindly Appling's deceptive strength was on display for that one. He made the free throw to cut it to 66-59 with 3:59 left.

A little later, Appling reached in on McCallum and stripped him of the ball, possibly taking a skin sample with him. He converted at the other end with a left-to-right crossover move for a lay-up, cutting it to 69-64 with 3:10 left.

Howard missed a wild 3-pointer in transition on Pershing's next possession, with Appling not touching the ball.

Appling then stole the ball from McCallum again, but Appling didn't get a chance to go to work on the offensive end as a teammate missed another 3.

After McCallum was part of an over-and-back turnover on an in-bound play, Country Day met Appling with another defensive change, this time going back to the 1-3-1.

Appling operated from the top of the key and tried to drive into the teeth of the defense. Three players clawed at him at the foul line while a fourth fell backward, trying to draw a charge. Country Day came away with a steal, and McCallum finished with a breakaway dunk, making it 71-64 with 2:00 left.

Appling watched a teammate miss a 3, then McCallum scored on a put-back at the other end to make it 77-67. Pershing didn't threaten the rest of the game.

"We are a young team, so I'm just trying to lead the young fellas, and show them the ropes the best I can," Appling said. "I think we've been handling it well so far. This is just a bump in the road, nothing major. We still have an opportunity to win the state championship. It doesn't really faze me that much."

In addition to getting a cheer-up from Cleaves, Appling also took a handshake from former high school teammate and future MSU teammate Derrick Nix. In addition to Nix, Cleaves and Smith, other notables in attendance included Spartan assistant coaches Mark Montgomery and Dwayne Stephens, current Spartans Draymond Green, Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers, and past Spartans such as Antonio Smith and Idong Ibok, plus future Spartan footballer William Gholston.

"I had to come here and support the young Spartan," Cleaves said. "Then I'm going over to Izzo's house."

Cleaves and several former Spartans were in East Lansing as part of the annual MSU players' reunion.

"I hadn't seen Jason Klein in a while and it was good to see him," Cleaves said. "It's always good to see the guys like Peplowski and Weshinskey. And I've loved Steve Smith for a long time; he's been my mentor. It's always good to see him around, and all of the guys."

Soon, Appling will be one of the guys too. But first he has his eyes on championships of his own, at the high school and college level.

impresed with Appling's rebounding,a nd man-to-man defense.

Impressed with McCallum's strength, long arms to go with a good boene sturcutru, speed with th eright handed dribble on one occasion. the one knock on his game is his shootinb but he hahppednd to hit a pair of 3-pointers on this night.

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