Spartans rally with star point guard out
Sitting on the bench, a cumbersome, protective boot on his left heel, Kalin Lucas could only watch. So used carrying his team to victories, the star point guard has been forced to leave Michigan State's fate in someone else's hands.
So far, the Spartans have had a firm grip.
Led by swaggering sophomore Korie Lucious, Michigan State has rallied around its fallen star and advanced to another regional final by getting everyone involved.
Once so reliant on Lucas, the fifth-seeded Spartans have depended on each other since last year's Big Ten player of the year ruptured his Achilles' tendon against Maryland in the NCAA tournament's second round.
They've been like a tattoo artist covering up unwanted ink: the underlying ugliness is still there, but it's masked by a larger, more elaborate masterpiece.
``I think after halftime of the Maryland game, that was a big turnaround for this team,'' Lucious said Saturday. ``We all made a commitment to rally around each other and play together as a team.''
Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams have always been tough-minded. The coach recruits that way, drills the mentality into them with things like his famous tough-guy ``War'' rebounding drill.
The Spartans have needed it this season.
Ranked No. 2 in the preseason, last year's national runner-up endured a dysfunctional season of injuries and conflicts that led to suspensions and benchings.
What could have been the crushing blow came against Maryland, when Lucas came down awkwardly and started hopping on one foot. Michigan State's leader - scoring, assists, mentally - was done for the season.
Instead of hanging their heads, the Spartans raised their hands, each one willing to carry more of the load.
All the conflict during the season steeled Michigan State's resolve, put the Spartans in position to overcome the loss of their leader and make it to Sunday's Midwest Regional final against No. 6 seed Tennessee.
``It culminated at halftime at that Maryland game because I think they understood that Kalin just lost what sometimes we take for granted,'' Izzo said. ``Then I think they bonded and tried to do not only something for him, but for the team and the program.''
Lucious has made the biggest difference.
He got a shot at running the team in early February, when Lucas hurt his ankle against Wisconsin. Lucious started the next game against Illinois and didn't play well, making one of five shots while turning it over six times, then was suspended against Penn State a week later after skipping a class.
A month later, Lucious was ready for his moment in the spotlight.
Against Maryland, he hit the game-winning shot, a 3-pointer at the buzzer. In the Midwest semifinals against Northern Iowa, Lucious played a heady and steady 39 minutes, getting 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals in a seven-point win.
So far, the transition from Lucas to Lucious has been delicious for the Spartans.
``Leading into that Illinois game, I don't really feel like I was ready to take on the responsibility of being a starting point guard and playing a lot of minutes and trying to lead this team,'' Lucious said. ``This time around, when Kalin did get hurt, I was ready for this responsibility.''
He's not the only one picking up the slack.
Junior guard Durrell Summers clashed with Izzo at times during the season, but has asserted himself in the NCAA tournament following a clear-the-air meeting with the coach after the Big Ten tournament. Summers has picked up the scoring load vacated by Lucas, getting 26 and 19 points the past two games
``We were just bumping heads on some things,'' Summers said. ``A lot of it was probably me being stubborn in some situations and not seeing everything that he wanted. I called the meeting because I wanted to try to get everything on a clean slate so it would work for us in the tournament.''
The Spartans have gotten that kind of commitment throughout the lineup.
Sophomore forward Draymond Green has excelled in his sixth-man role, giving Michigan State someone who can guard the opponents' center and bring the ball up the court to break the press.
Delvon Roe has gutted his way through a painful knee injury that will require surgery after the season, fighting for rebounds and sailing in for one-legged dunks. Chris Allen has battled an injury of his own and the rest of the Spartans have found their own little ways to contribute, keeping Michigan State formidable even without its star player.
``You need a week and a half to prepare for Michigan State,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. ``They do so many things well. They've got so many great sets and so many great looks.''
And so many players filling Lucas' shoes.