Appling already had committed to Michigan State when he arrived at the Breslin Center in the spring of 2009 as a junior guard at Detroit's Pershing High to play in Michigan's Class A state championship game against Kalamazoo Central. On his future home floor, Appling delivered a star-making performance.
"It kind of got me out there a little more," said Appling, now a 6-foot-2 incoming freshman at Michigan State.
With Kalamazoo Central focusing its attention on teammate Derrick Nix - Michigan's Mr. Basketball that year - Appling carried his team to the state title.
Nix only scored four points that day. Not that it mattered. Appling poured in 49 points to break a 26-year-old state championship game record in Pershing's 90-71 victory. He shot 17-of-24 overall, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
"We stopped 'Mr. Basketball,' but Keith was just amazing," Kalamazoo Central coach Michael Thomas told reporters afterward. "He was the game. Period."
Soon enough, Appling also would be Mr. Basketball, becoming the second consecutive Pershing player to earn that honor by averaging 28 points, six rebounds and five assists as a senior.
By that point, Appling already had long since decided on his college choice. He had committed to Michigan State in the summer of 2008, almost eight months before his memorable performance at the Breslin Center.
"I always wanted to go to Michigan State," Appling said. "Growing up, that was the hometown favorite. They always won. There are all the good players that have been through there who made it to the league. That's every kid's dream."
Appling's new teammates knew his reputation before he ever signed with Michigan State. Even though they didn't get to witness his 49-point performance in person - the Spartans were participating in the NCAA tournament at the time - they certainly heard about it after returning to school.
Now that Appling has arrived on campus, the Spartans are even more impressed.
"He actually knows how to play point guard better than I thought he could," Michigan State junior forward Draymond Green said. "He knows how to get his teammates involved in the game. He can shoot the ball and also get to the bucket, and he's quick enough to get around whoever's guarding him, especially in transition. He's very explosive."
"Since he's been on campus, I haven't seen him get stopped in transition one time," Green said.
Appling, the No. 38 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, won't have to become an immediate standout. He's joining a team that has made back-to-back Final Four appearances and returns five players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season. Still, his scoring ability should allow him to carve out a niche in his freshman season.
"He can provide instant offense," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's a great one-on-one scorer. He'll be ready to do that right away in college. He'll probably need to improve his defense, which a lot of freshmen do. But I think he'll be ready to score points."
Appling definitely is a scorer. He averaged at least 20 points in each of his last three seasons at Pershing.
He also is a winner. Appling's school reached the state championship game when he was a sophomore before taking the title his junior season.
Pershing coach A.W. Canada noticed that will to win as soon as he started working with Appling, who didn't want to settle for second in any competition. Whether he was playing a pickup game or participating in a simple shooting drill, Appling always wanted to make sure he won.
"He has that internal drive that very few have," Canada said. "He refuses to lose at anything he does."
That's one reason Appling chose Michigan State.
"They're very consistent with their winning," Appling said. "I wanted to go into a program that's already accomplished things before I got there."
The presence of a former teammate should help Appling make a relatively smooth transition. Nix also went from Pershing to Michigan State, where he averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds in 7.8 minutes per game as a 6-9 freshman center last season.
Joining a veteran group
Michigan State returns plenty of experience from last season's Final Four team even after the offseason dismissal of shooting guard Chris Allen, now at Iowa State. These five players each averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season.
"They get along very well off the court," Canada said. "They're like brothers. ... Derrick's a very charismatic person, so all the people around him love him. Keith's more introverted."
They also have a good relationship on the court that should pay dividends for the next few seasons.
"We play really well together," Appling said. "I open [things] up for him, and he opens [things] up for me."
That much was apparent during Appling's record-setting performance in the state championship game. Though the statistics suggested Nix wasn't much of a factor that day, Appling tells a much different story.
"Nix had a big impact on the game," Appling said. "There were three people on him every time he touched the ball. So every time he touched it, he just kicked it out to me and I hit the open shot."
Appling definitely can find open shots. He also can find the open man. Because Appling was such a prolific scorer in high school, his Michigan State teammates wondered how well he could handle the other responsibilities required of a point guard. Appling's performance in offseason pickup games has ended those concerns.
"When you're a scorer in high school, you don't really have to show point-guard skills because your team expects you to score," Green said. "On his high school team, that's what he did. He scored the basketball. He wasn't having to get involved in point-guard situations when I saw him play [in high school]. Of course, I didn't see him play a lot.
"Watching him play this summer, we put him in point-guard situations, and he's been responding very well."
Appling also could find a home at shooting guard. As well as he plays the point, he still is primarily known as a scorer.
"He's a combo guard, but I think he's at his best as a shooting guard, where he's looking to score,'' Meyer said. "To me, that's what makes him a special player. He's a great one-on-one scorer."
Whatever his eventual role, Appling already has created one memorable moment at the Breslin Center. He's eager to start producing more.