Of the four teams at the Jimmy V Classic, which begins tonight at Madison Square Garden, the team that will rely most on its freshmen to get into the NCAA tournament is Memphis. Kansas has the most anticipated freshman, but Josh Selby won’t be eligible to play until Dec. 18.
Syracuse and Michigan State have other parts, but they’ll need production from their freshmen if they’re to compete for league championships, and perhaps nationally.
The headline names for the Spartans and Orange are familiar: for MSU, it’s Kalin Lucas and for Syracuse, it’s Kris Joseph. The health of Lucas’ Achilles tendon remains a hot topic. MSU coach Tom Izzo said he made a mistake in managing Lucas’ minutes in consecutive games in Maui and then at Duke and said he needs “to be careful the next few weeks,” with Lucas. However, the key to elevating the Spartans into national contenders may lie with freshmen Keith Appling and Adreian Payne.
Appling has been sporadic so far, averaging 16.5 minutes and 6.3 points. The Spartans (6-2) need another guard to produce to take the burden off of Lucas. Appling did so in a win over Bowling Green (11 points, three assists and one turnover); he didn’t in a loss to Duke (nothing to show for six minutes of action but two fouls).
“He had a very good game Saturday,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But he was in foul trouble against Duke. He’s a tough kid who can defend. And I do think you’ll see a major step with him in the next couple of weeks.’’
Appling can be the third option at guard alongside Lucas and Korie Lucious with Durrell Summers in his own grouping as a scoring wing. For his part, Payne can be a much-needed scoring and rebounding big to complement Draymond Green, Garrick Sherman, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix.
So far Payne has averaged 10.5 minutes and 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds. He was limited to single-digit minutes in all three games in Maui.
“Payne is one of the most talented inside guys,’’ Izzo said. “But the four-and-a-half months he missed this summer with a shoulder separation prevented him from doing the one thing he needed to do -- get stronger. Against UConn, he was like a pinball in there and got bumped around. He showed improvement against Bowling Green [15 minutes, six rebounds and four points].
“For us to be a great team, it’s going to come down to still getting Lucas back to normal and those two guys [Appling and Payne] improving,’’ Izzo said.
Waiters (6.6 ppg) and Fair (5 ppg) are averaging just over 13 minutes a game, while Keita is averaging 20.6 minutes and six rebounds a game. Melo is down to 13.5 minutes and 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds a game.
“The freshmen are making progress,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Fab has struggled with a sore Achilles for a number of weeks now. It’s held up his progress getting him up and down the court. He starts out well and then his foot is bothering him. That’s what has held him back.’’
Boeheim points to the combined production of Keita and Melo as a positive -- together they are averaging more than eight rebounds a game.
“They’re doing a good job, but we need them to get better, but it is a yearlong process; it’s not going to happen in two weeks,’’ Boeheim said. “Hopefully they’ll all keep getting better. Dion has had some good moments and C.J. has been doing a good job. We’ve got four freshmen among our top eight guys. That’s the youngest we’ve been in a number of years. We have one senior [Jackson], so we’re where we should be at this stage in the season where we’ve scrapped out a couple of wins.’’
The Orange are inexperienced and that won’t change against Michigan State on Tuesday night.
“You find yourself doing a lot more things in practice than we have,’’ Boeheim said. “Last year we were on cruise control with a one hour-and-fifteen minute or one hour-and-thirty minute practice. We did the work, did the running and didn’t correct a lot. We just won games and kept everyone in rhythm. This year we’re scratching for everything we can get.
“We’re not that far away from being 5-3. We were behind in four of our eight games and made some good plays late. We can play a lot better.’’
And if the freshmen start producing, that will change. For Michigan State, the freshmen will be a welcome addition to elevate the Spartans rather than a necessary piece to its conference title hopes.