NEW YORK – Michigan State guard Keith Appling drove the lane one day in practice and flipped a lob to Branden Dawson as he had many times before.
“He didn’t go get it,” Appling recalled Saturday. “It wasn’t that it was a bad pass or bad timing. We weren’t used to doing it. I had been out for so long, and he had been out for so long.”
Appling figured the injury-riddled Spartans would rekindle their chemistry sooner or later. But there isn’t much of a later in the final days of the regular season.
Just in time, Michigan State got its timing back. The Spartans are one win away from their seventh Final Four in 16 seasons.
They face UConn today at Madison Square Garden in the East Regional final, a scene hard to envision when Michigan State lost seven of 12 to close the regular season.
Not that the reasons were a mystery. Appling missed three games in February with a sore right wrist. Dawson sat out nine with a broken right hand. Big man Adreian Payne was sidelined for seven with a sprained right foot.
“Once you get everybody back, you kind of expect it to go smoothly like it was before,” guard Gary Harris said of a team that started 18-1.
Instead, the Spartans lost at home to Illinois on March 1 in their first game at full strength.
The seventh-seeded Huskies’ seniors have played in a Final Four, winning a national title as freshmen. They’ve also experienced missing the tournament altogether. UConn was barred from last year’s tourney because of previous low scores on the NCAA’s academic progress measure.