Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Saddle Up: In search of Kalin
By Eamonn Brennan
Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown. (In lieu of a video preview for tonight's game, which I had planned to do until a cold made me sound like Tom Waits on Saturday morning, here's an extra-beefy edition of Saddle Up).
OK, obviously Lucas didn't decide to be injured. Obviously, he'd prefer to be on the floor at all times. But say the Ghost of Ankle Injuries Future visited Lucas in his sleep one night in October (hey, it could happen -- haven't you ever seen "A Muppet Christmas Carol"?) and told him he would have one ankle sprain this year, and that he could point to the Spartans' schedule and decide when it would be, I'm betting he wouldn't have picked this stretch of the Big Ten season.
A Lucas-less Michigan State team was forced to into an orange-colored cauldron on Saturday. Now the Spartans are staring down a crucial matchup with Big Ten rival Purdue. They're also looking at a potential three-game losing streak and a loss of their solo hold on the Big Ten's top spot.
It's not that Michigan State can't beat Purdue without Lucas, whose status will be a game-time decision. The Spartans are at home, which is always nice; heck, Indiana almost beat Purdue on the Hoosiers' home floor last week. And Michigan State showed some things without Lucas in their loss to the Illini -- namely, that they can still score, that they have decent, untapped depth and that Draymond Green is more versatile than you think. And Purdue doesn't exactly wow you with its guard play, at least not at the point guard spot, the one major hole in the Boilermakers' lineup.
But it will be tough if he's not able to play. The Spartans committed 20 turnovers at Illinois on Saturday, and it was obvious why: Kalin Lucas wasn't on the floor. Without him, the Spartans still got out in transition, but in the half court they frequently looked lost, settling on long jump shots from guards Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. When he's on the floor, Lucas gets a majority of the Spartans' possessions, and he's efficient with them. When he's not there, the Spartans are left to score by committee.
It won't help that the Boilermakers, after a three-game losing streak toward the beginning of the conference season, are beginning to hit their stride. Purdue has rattled off five straight wins -- including a win at Illinois and a tight home victory over Wisconsin -- and have looked impressive in doing so.
Purdue isn't a statistical powerhouse. Their defense is stalwart but not elite, and their offense overwhelms you with its efficiency. They're just sort of good at everything. They're smart shot selectors. They never turn the ball over. They force opponents into bad looks. They clean up their defensive boards. It's pretty simple stuff.
With or without Lucas, the Spartans have a chance to win if they force Purdue into outside shots. Again: It's simple, but true. The Boilermakers are not a good 3-point shooting team -- at 31.6 percent, they rank in the high 200's in the country in 3-point percentage -- nor is their offensive rebounding particularly impressive.
This is key. If Izzo can get his defenders to sink in a zone, make Purdue launch a few more 3s than Matt Painter would like, the Spartans should be able to turn long rebounds into transition layups. On the other hand, if Purdue is scoring in the paint, it's doubtful the Spartans will be able to hold onto the ball long enough against Purdue's frantic, turnover-inducing, man defense to stay afloat.
Speaking of Izzo, he returned from Wisconsin and Illinois impressed with the fan support, and would like MSU fans to forget about the snow that is pummeling their windows and "get jacked" for tonight's game. Somehow I doubt that will be a problem. It certainly won't be an issue on my couch. Lucas or not, this game ought to be awesome.
On New Year's Day, it looked like Tennessee's hopes of a successful season were over. But look at the Vols now: 18-4 overall (with a win over Kansas to boot), 6-2 in the SEC and, barring a catastrophic collapse, a lock to make the NCAA tournament.