July 8, 2009

Post-Cincy breakdown of MSU-bound Mustangs

CINCINNATI - The Michigan Mustangs bowed out of the adidas It Takes 5ive tournament, losing in the quarterfinals 79-72 to Grassroots Canada. Spartan commitment Keith Appling grew cold just 90 minutes after a rousing performance in the round of 16.

Appling had 15 points on 7-of-14 shooting. After going 5-of-6 from 3-point range in the round of 16, Appling was 0-for-5 from beyond the arc against Grassroots Canada. Appling also was 0-for-4 from the foul line in the final minute.

"We've ridden Keith Appling in all of our wins in all of our tournaments and I'm going to keep riding him," said Mustangs head coach Norm Oden. "It's just one of those things. Some of the shots didn't fall this time, like the free throws. He is an outstanding free throw shooter, and he's even better under pressure. In this game, he didn't make them, but he will the next time. I think this game was an aberration.

"We were a few free throws short, a few rebounds short and we lost to a good team that played hard. We did some uncharacteristic things. We were 4-for-12 on free throws and we didn't rebound well."

The Canadians have a handful of Top 75 players and a good complement of hardscrabble role players. Grassroots Canada won the Vegas Super 64 championship last year. They are a strong program.

Appling had his hands full defensively with Grassroots Canada point guard Brady Heslip. Heslip scored 31 points and buried eight 3-pointers. When Heslip had an inch of daylight, he let it fly, and often found twine.

Heslip has committed to play at Guelph, a Canadian college. He is the son of Guelph's all-time leading scorer, and the nephew of Canadian basketball legend and Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano.

But know this: Heslip is good enough to play in any conference in America. He carries himself somewhat like Western Michigan's David Kool, but is a bit quicker with the dribble and shot release, and a big-time shooter. The Steve Nash comparisons are a natural, but he might be more like former Clemson streak shooter Terrance Oglesby.

Heslip played like a Top 75 player (at least) against Appling.

Heslip's first two or three 3-pointers came with little resistance. Then as the Mustangs started to get out on him, he still found open areas just often enough to allow Grassroots to maintain the lead.

Grassroots Canada continually caused problems for the Mustangs by operating Heslip behind high ball screens, and taking advantage of open areas of the rotating defense.

The harder that Appling tried to lock down on Heslip, the more susceptible he became to high ball screens. Appling needed more help and recovery from his big men, but Oden said the Mustangs haven't had quite enough practice time to tighten up their ballscreen defense. Usually, an AAU team can get away with allowing a few defensive windows to remain open. But when a team has a point guard as hot as Heslip was on Tuesday night, you're in trouble.

Late in the game, the Mustangs put 6-foot-5 Juwan Howard on Heslip, but Heslip crossed him over and scored on a nifty lay-up to put Grassroots up 66-62 with 4:47 to go.

Moments earlier, he drove around Appling and scored a high-glass lay-up over MSU commitment Alex Gauna.

Gauna finished with 6 points and 5 rebounds.

Jon Horford had 9 points on 3-of-9 shooting, his least productive game of the week. He enjoyed a strong showing in the round of 32 earlier in the day with an impressed Tom Izzo watching from the sidelines.

"Jon had a good week," Oden said. "He did a lot of good things. I know the secret of Jon. Not a lot of people have seen him. He is not always going to score, but he is going to rebound, he is going to block shots, he is going to play defense."

Izzo left Cincinnati at mid-day to travel to Cleveland for the start of the King City Classic. MSU assistant coach Mark Montgomery watched the Mustangs' mid-afternoon victory over Shining Stars (Ky.), and the nightcap loss to Grassroots Canada.

Howard led the Mustangs with 20 points. He began the game with two 3-pointers while being guarded by Heslip. Heslip looked like he was going to be a defensive liability at the outset, but he proved to have more than enough firepower on offense to make up for any defensive deficiencies.

"I don't know much about him other than he can shoot the lights out," Oden said. "And I heard he had seven or eight 3s in the game before this one.

"With my guys, when the legs go, the shots don't go. But with this guy, he has played just as many games as us and it didn't look like the fatigue affected him at all. He really shot it well. You couldn't give him a crease because he was going to knock down the 3."

Lansing rising junior Ladonte Henton finished with 11 points, and breathed some life into the sluggish Mustangs with some hustle points along the baseline.

As difficult a time as the Mustangs had, the state's top adidas team looked to be in good shape with 1:30 to play when Appling drove and fed Gauna for a pretty, athletic, explosive reverse lay-up to give the Mustangs a 72-70 lead. It was easily the loudest play of the day for Gauna, who was kind of quiet in Tuesday's games.

Then, on defense, Appling jumped the passing lanes and tried to intercept a pass intended for Heslip at the top of the key. Appling came up empty, leaving Heslip wide open for a 3-pointer. He nailed it, giving the Canadians the lead for good at 73-72 with :59 left.

Appling immediately went on the attack on offense, drove and was fouled while attempting an ambitious, hanging left-handed lay-up. But he missed both free throws.

The Canadians went 6-for-6 from the foul line for the rest of the game without turning the ball over.

"This loss hurts because we had a chance to play on the last day and any time you play in the final four, you have a chance to win the whole thing," Oden said. "We have historically done very well in July and this was a big tournament for us. It's a disappointment. We were playing well and I'm surprised by the way we lost, with some uncharacteristic things."

WRAP IT UP

Overall, Keith Appling probably helped his stock in the eyes of national observers at this adidas tournament. He was outstanding on Monday night against the Atlanta Celtics, and had a terrific scoring binge in that game, as well as a personal 10-point run that served as a turning point in the Mustangs' victory on Tuesday in the round of 16. He is ranked the No. 39 player in America by Rivals.com, but Montgomery had a handful of college coaches from around the country stop by and tell him in the bleachers that Appling was a freak.

  • Jon Horford impressed Izzo on Monday night and Tuesday afternoon. The Spartans offered Horford a scholarship in February and have turned the heat up again on the Grand Ledge post player. He has quick, light feet, good post moves, excellent shot-blocking ability and defensive tenacity. He's a leader and a good-natured kid. He has some face-up ability and a high, high ceiling. MSU will be battling with Alabama, Florida and Miami among others, but the Spartans would love to close on him and make him a Spartan.

  • Alex Gauna, who committed to MSU in the spring, set good screens and passed the ball well, but he will need to finish better around the rim and own more rebounds if he wants to make Izzo smile at tournaments in Kentucky and Nevada in coming weeks.

  • Ladonte Henton was considered the best sophomore in the state at this time last year, after averaging 16 points and 14 rebounds as a ninth grader at Lansing Eastern. But now that other rising juniors in his class continue to improve, he is going to have a hard time remaining among the top five in Michigan unless he adds perimeter polish to his game.

    He rekindled his aggressive ways at times during the loss to Grassroots Canada. He did more good things in that game than he did in the round of 16 victory over Shining Star. Henton, who technically could be playing with the Mustangs' younger 16-and-under team, is coming off the bench for the 17s, playing behind Howard.

    Henton still enjoys advantages of physical strength that are beyond his years but at 6-foot-5 and a full goatee, he might not get any taller. He needs to continue to work on his perimeter game, which means ball handling and shooting off the dribble. He made some 3-pointers in Cincinnati, but also took some ill-advised shots.

    Most of his points still come within four feet of the rim, but it's harder to get those opportunities now that opponents in his age group are getting bigger and taller. If Henton develops his ball handling ability and accepts the fact that he doesn't have the athletic gifts of other players, he might be able to reinvent himself as a multi-faceted, multiple position role enforcer in the mould of a Sergio McClain. For now, however, his transition from power forward to wing prospect seems to be an uncomfortable one.

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