ANN ARBOR — The Michigan State Spartans are in the midst of the last half of the Big Ten regular season and in preparation for the NCAA Tournament and March Madness, they have gotten off to the best start in the school’s noteworthy history.
The Mateen Cleaves, Magic Johnson and Steve Smith teams never started a season 9-0 in the Big Ten Conference. Yet here they are halfway through the conference wars and the Spartans have a three game lead with a lofty 19-3 (9-0 Big Ten) record.
Leading the way for the Spartans is junior point guard Kalin Lucas, who just so happens to be the reigning 2008-2009 Big Ten Player of the Year. Voted team co-captain along with Raymar Morgan and an All-American and John R. Wooden Award candidate, the lightening quick guard is on the national radar.
Pushing and cajoling his teammates, Lucas and Michigan State ascended all the way to the Final Four title game at Ford Field last year; they lost to North Carolina before the largest crowd in a NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball National Championship Game — 72,922 at Ford Field.
“That run last year was great because we were playing at home in front of friends and family,” Lucas said. “You can play in a thousand games but to have it in your backyard and be a major part of it was special.”
Lucas said going into the NCAA Tournament no one believed that they could get through their bracket, which was the toughest in the entire bracket seeding.
No matter, one by one they fell and Lucas was the linchpin behind it all. First, Southern California and then defending NCAA champions Kansas. Next, Lucas and company overcame No. 1 seed Louisville, followed that by beating No. 1 seed Connecticut.
“We wanted to shock the world and show all we had a very good team,” Lucas said. “It is good to think back about what we did, but the bottom line is we did not win. We did not like that feeling of getting to the title game and losing, so everyone went to work in the off season and dedicated themselves to personally getting better as people and players. We knew coming into the season after winning the Big Ten and getting to the NCAA title game that we would have a bull’s-eye on our backs.”
Indeed, the Spartans have been challenged all year as every team has put a star by the MSU game on its calendar, all eager to knock off one of the last year’s NCAA finalists.
So when the Spartans fell to 9-3 earlier in the season, Tom Izzo, in his 15th season as the head coach, challenged Lucas to be the player he thinks he can be. With the graduation of top scorer and rebounder, center Goran Suton, and defensive specialist, guard Travis Walton, the Spartans are not the same team that made it to the Final Four.
“There was something that was just not clicking,” Izzo said, “and that is what was very frustrating.”
With Walton and Suton doing their thing, all Lucas had to do last year was use his speed and athleticism to help break down defensives.
Now in the 2009-2010 season Izzo wants and expects Lucas to do so much more. To get his point across he put Lucas out of practice earlier in the year and did not start him for one game. It had nothing to do with attitude or grades.
“I’m proud of the way he has bounced back after what he has been through,” Izzo said. “It takes a special guy to take a little abuse and use it to step up. He has not sulked, but he has taken over games recently. I always knew he had that kind of ability.
“I told him I need him to be the best practice player every day, because he is the best player. I need and wanted him to be close to his teammates, to really get to know them, and then to talk to me when they need something. I told him, ‘I’m asking for the world.’”
Well, the 6-foot, 180 whippet-like guard since conference play has been the do everything person and player Izzo wants him to be. Albeit, he has also gotten help from a number of players that have fallen into and closed voids.
With Durrell Summers taking charge of being a defensive presence and Draymond Green getting on the boards and being a verbal cog in the team’s chemistry, it has taken a little pressure off Lucas to be the all everything Izzo wants of him.
“Coach expects a lot of Kalin,” Summers said, “but it was on us to step up and give him some help. He is one of the best guards in the country. He establishes tempo for us and makes sure we show patience in tight game situations.”
Said Lucas: “We have a very good group of guys here. We are starting to find ourselves, but we know there is a long way to go. So we just want to practice hard and stay aggressive and see where it will lead us.”
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.