College Basketball Nation: Kalin Lucas

Preview: Saturday in Tampa

March, 19, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- A look at today's games in Tampa:

No. 5 seed West Virginia (21-11) vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky (26-8), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Kentucky player to watch: Junior Darius Miller doesn’t get as much attention as freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but he might have been UK’s most important player down the stretch. In the past 10 games, Miller is averaging 15.6 points. He had 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the Wildcats’ 59-57 victory over No. 13 seed Princeton in the second round on Thursday, after a solid performance in three games in the SEC tournament. At 6-foot-7, Miller is a tough defensive matchup for opponents. He can shoot from the perimeter, score off the dribble and post up in the paint. WVU coach Bob Huggins might assign John Flowers, his best defender, to guard Miller because he’s a three-way threat.

West Virginia player to watch: Senior guard Casey Mitchell is West Virginia’s leading scorer with 13.7 points per game, but he’s been noticeably quiet over the past few weeks. Mitchell scored only nine points on 2-for-8 shooting in a 67-61 loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, and then had only four points on 2-for-6 shooting in an 84-76 win over Clemson in an NCAA second-round game on Thursday. Mitchell makes 37.8 percent of his 3-pointers, but he isn’t playing with much confidence right now.

Stat that matters: 1-8: Kentucky coach John Calipari’s record versus West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.

Three things to watch:

1. West Virginia’s defense: The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season, earning their first trip to the Final Four since 1959. West Virginia struggled to guard UK with a man-to-man defense early in the game, so Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone. UK never solved the zone, missing its first 20 3-point attempts before finishing 4-for-32 from behind the 3-point line. Of course, West Virginia had longer wing players like Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to defend the perimeter a year ago.

“[Last year], a lot of their shots were contested, under duress from the 1-3-1,” Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That’s just what we’ve got to do tomorrow. We can’t let them get standstill shots and we can’t let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it’ll be the same result.”

2. Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight: The UK point guard was one of the country’s best freshmen, leading the team with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. But Knight has struggled from the floor over the past couple of weeks, shooting only 32.4 percent in his past six games. Knight hit the winning shot with two seconds left in the victory over Princeton, but missed his first seven shots in the game and never looked comfortable.

“At the beginning of the game [Thursday], guys around me were knocking down shots,” Knight said. “A lot of guys were finishing. Darius was on a roll. So at that point in the game, I didn’t really have to shoot the ball a lot. We were doing just fine.”

3. Kentucky’s bench: The Wildcats really use only six players, with five players averaging 30 minutes or more and senior Josh Harrellson playing about 28 minutes per game. Reserves Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood rarely leave the bench. West Virginia’s bench is about four players deep, as nine Mountaineers average 8.5 minutes or more. WVU’s reserves -- guards Mitchell, Jonnie West and Dalton Pepper and forward Deniz Kilicli -- combined for 28 points in the victory over Clemson.

No. 7 seed UCLA (23-10) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (27-7), approx. 2:45 ET (CBS)

Florida player to watch: Senior forward Chandler Parsons was named SEC Player of the Year without even leading the Gators in scoring. He was third on the team with 11.5 points per game, but led UF with 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. During the Gators’ 79-51 rout of No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara in the second round, Parsons finished three rebounds short of recording a triple-double. In 27 minutes, he had 10 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

UCLA player to watch: It’s impossible to miss freshman center Josh Smith, who is 6-10 and 323 pounds. The Washington native lost 40 pounds during the offseason and is averaging about 21 minutes per game. After playing off the bench during the past 10 weeks, Smith started against Michigan State on Thursday and had 14 points, three rebounds and two steals in the Bruins’ 78-76 victory.

“I think when you see somebody that big physically and that strong, the feeling is maybe they don’t move quite as well or they can’t jump as well,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “But he really does a terrific job moving his feet for a guy that size. I also think the other thing that makes him a special player is he’s got great hands. I think when balls are up on the glass, he’s going to grab it.”

Florida’s big men -- Vernon Macklin, Erik Murphy, Alex Tyus and Patric Young -- will have their hands full trying to handle Smith.

Stat that matters: 0 -- Points scored in NCAA tournament games by UCLA’s players before Thursday night’s victory over Michigan State.

Three things to watch:

1. Malcolm Lee’s defense: The UCLA junior is one of the country’s best defenders and will gladly accept the challenge of slowing down Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. In the Bruins’ narrow victory over Michigan State, Lee harassed Spartans senior Kalin Lucas throughout the game. Lucas missed his first 10 shots and had four turnovers. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting in his final college game. Lee is playing with a slight cartilage tear in his knee and even needed staples to close a wound on his scalp on Thursday night.

“I’ve said before I think Malcolm is the best defender at his position in the country,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

2. UCLA’s foul shots: The Bruins shot foul shots well at the end of the regular season, but their work at the foul line nearly cost them a victory over the Spartans on Thursday night. The Bruins made only 30 of 47 free ones against MSU, missing 13-of-28 in the second half. In the final 5 minutes, 19 seconds, UCLA went 12-for-22 from the foul line, which helped allow the Spartans to nearly come back from a 23-point deficit. The Bruins are shooting 68.1 percent from the charity stripe as a team, and forward Reeves Nelson and Smith are both shooting about 61 percent.

3. Florida’s experience: The Gators start three seniors, although they hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game until routing the Gauchos on Thursday night. The Bruins, who have been forced to rebuild after losing a boatload of players who helped them reach three straight Final Fours from 2006 to ’08, don’t have a senior on their roster. The Bruins sometimes make mistakes typical of young teams, like turning the ball over and missing foul shots. Can Florida’s veterans take advantage of UCLA’s youth?

TAMPA, Fla. -- Almost mercifully, Michigan State’s season-to-forget came to an end Thursday night.

The 10th-seeded Spartans, who were ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls but needed a late-season push just to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, fell to No. 7 seed UCLA 78-76 in a second-round game of the Southeast Regional at St. Pete Times Forum.

Even after finishing the season with a disappointing 19-15 record, the Spartans did the only thing coach Tom Izzo could ask them to do -- they fought to the very end.

After trailing by 23 points with about 8 ½ minutes to go, Michigan State cut UCLA’s lead to 78-76 and had the basketball with 4.4 seconds to go. But senior guard Kalin Lucas was called for traveling while trying to dribble through a triple-team down the sideline, and the Spartans’ improbable comeback was over.

[+] EnlargeKalin Lucas
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesUCLA's defense held Kalin Lucas to only 11 points and five assists.
“I’m crushed and disappointed because we just got off to such a poor start, and yet I’m so proud of these guys,” Izzo said. “They’ve been knocked down so many times this year. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team that’s gone through as much, and yet to battle back and almost put themselves at a chance to win was incredible. I’m incredibly grateful to them.”

In the end, though, the Spartans were never able to live up their lofty preseason hype against one of the country’s most difficult schedules.

MSU lost eight of its first 20 games and was plagued by off-court distractions. Guard Chris Allen was dismissed from the team in May and transferred to Iowa State. On Jan. 26, Izzo kicked guard Korie Lucious off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Izzo even ran into his own troubles with the NCAA and was suspended for one game for committing a secondary rules violation.

“It’s been a year that I’ll never forget for a lot of reasons,” Izzo said. “It’s kind of a fitting way to end, because I’ve been telling these guys all year, we’ve just got to keep battling back. Where some people have just fallen off the face of the earth with one of these seasons, we didn’t. I kept telling them we’ve got to be like a boxer and just keep getting up.”

Even a heavyweight like Michigan State endures seasons like this one. The Spartans’ 15 losses are their most in a season since a 16-16 finish in 1995-96, Izzo’s first campaign. The losses also equaled Michigan State's total from their previous two seasons combined.

Izzo said he hurt most for seniors such as Lucas, Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler. After MSU played in the Final Four in each of the previous two seasons, it went one-and-done in their final college season.

Lucas fought back tears while addressing reporters in MSU’s postgame news conference.

“I think I had a great four years here,” Lucas said. “I had a great coach that pushed me every day at practice, and I had great teammates that pushed me every day at practice as well. The loss hurts, but at the same time these four years have been great.”

Lucas, the team’s leading scorer, battled back after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in the NCAA tournament last season.

UCLA focused much of its defensive attention on Lucas, and he missed his first eight shots. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting and had five assists and four turnovers.

“I know it had to be rough for him,” MSU forward Draymond Green said. “I feel like he had a great career, and he hasn’t had many games where he just couldn’t get anything to fall. They did a great job defensively on him. They pretty much keyed on him the whole entire defense, and he did a great job of still getting everybody else involved.”

Lucas finished four points shy of reaching 2,000 points in his career.

“It hurts me,” Green said. “I’m a big fan of my guys reaching milestones, and the loss hurts me, but I think I’m kind of hurting because he came up four points short of 2,000. For everything he did for this program, I get to come back for another year so I can be sad about the loss later. I think I’m hurting more about him not getting them four points.”

Izzo said he won’t remember these seniors by their final campaign. They were part of teams that reached the Sweet 16 in 2008, the national championship game in 2009 and the national semifinals last season.

“I’m proud of all those seniors,” Izzo said. “I hope people look at what they’ve accomplished in their four-year career because it is unbelievable how many games they won and crowds they played in front of and what they’ve done.”

A special time for Michigan State

March, 11, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s that time again in college basketball.

Izzo Time.

Time for the Michigan State Spartans to shed their worries, to play at a dramatically different level, to become the most stubborn out in the postseason. Time for big shots and big stops, tenacious rebounds and pinpoint passes, ferocious blocked shots and timely steals. Time for laser focus on the scouting report, crisp walk-throughs and a sharpened sense of purpose at tipoff.

Time to win or go home -- and Tom Izzo’s teams tend to win in those situations.

The seventh-seeded Spartans crushed second-seeded Purdue 74-56 Friday in the Big Ten quarterfinals, sewing up an NCAA tournament bid that at several points in this dysfunctional season seemed out of reach. They eked out a close victory Thursday against Iowa, limped out of that with a few battered bodies, appeared in over their heads against a Boilermakers team that already had beaten them twice -- and then dominated the game from the opening tip.

They led 10-2. They led 21-10. They led 37-23 at halftime. They pushed the lead to 20 just a couple of minutes into the second half, then rolled to the final horn without Purdue ever coming closer than nine.

They barely fell short of fulfilling the request from guard Kalin Lucas at the team meal to forward Draymond Green.

“Day-Day,” Lucas said, “let’s beat them by 20.”

It was a preposterous thing for Lucas to say, considering he didn’t even participate in the team walk-through after rolling his ankle Thursday against Iowa. Lucas got treatment on the ankle last night, got out of bed Friday morning, took one step and said, “Man, it’s sore.”

So he got more treatment all day, but nobody was sure how much he could do against the Boilermakers.

Naturally, he went off for a career-high 30. Nobody from the state of Michigan has looked that good on a bad wheel since Isiah Thomas in the NBA Finals in 1988.

“Kalin’s a warrior,” said teammate Delvon Roe. “The way he played through the ankle pain was phenomenal.”

That’s what players do at Izzo Time. Lucas shrugs off an injury and burns up the nets. Roe, who has the right knee of a retired NFL player, shrugs off the pain of playing back-to-back nights to produce eight rebounds and four blocked shots.

“He sits up here and says Kalin’s a warrior,” Green said of Roe. “That’s what he is.”

At Izzo Time, there are warriors everywhere in green and white. There’s freshman Keith Appling hitting two 3-pointers. There’s Durrell Summers hauling down eight rebounds. There’s Mike Kebler making a key steal and hammering home a dunk. There’s Derrick Nix bodying up on Purdue center JaJuan Johnson.

There’s a 13-loss team suddenly looking like it can go to yet another Final Four.

For months, the warriors were worriers. They were snorkeling through an awful season, underperforming after starting the season ranked second in the nation. They lost so often that Michigan State found itself in uncharted territory for the first time in years -- sweating it out on the bubble like a bunch of commoners.

“For the first time, honest to God, I saw it [Thursday] night,” Izzo said. “I think the mental strain that’s been on this team since the end of January kind of got to us a little bit.”

But a team that went to bed Thursday mentally fatigued woke up Friday with renewed vigor. The walk-throughs and film sessions at the team hotel were so sharp that they reminded Izzo of the 2009 regional final, when the locked-in Spartans upset top seed Louisville to go to the Final Four.

“There was just a focus,” Lucas said, “from [player] one to 15 and from the coaches.”

That’s because it’s Izzo Time.

But Michigan State has had so many letdowns and disappointing losses this year that you won’t catch the coach getting overly dazzled by this performance. His wariness is well-earned.

“We’re breathing, but we’re not out of the water,” he said. “We’re not at the beach, I can tell you that.”

Izzo vowed to have the postgame smiles of his players wiped away by the time the Spartans got back to their hotel room. But he was happy to see them after so much drama and trauma this year.

“They should smile,” Izzo said. “They earned it. They earned their way.”

Earned their way to the NCAAs, and they could be the most dangerous 19-13 team that tourney has ever seen. At Izzo Time, you never count out the Spartans.

Big Ten tournament preview

March, 11, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- Three things I can't wait to see in Northwestern-Ohio State:
  • Can Michael Thompson continue his roll? The spunky little Northwestern guard set a Big Ten tournament scoring record with 35 points against Minnesota Thursday. Theoretically, he'll be facing a tougher defense against the Buckeyes, so it will be difficult for a 5-foot-10 guard to dominate a game. But Thursday he very much looked the part of a senior who is driving to extend his career as long as possible, so we'll see what carries over to Friday.
  • Can Jon Diebler continue his roll? The Ohio State senior sharpshooter has been ridiculous of late, making 17 of 20 3-point shots in the Buckeyes' last two games. Four words for Northwestern: get a hand up. And even that might not be enough.
  • Can Northwestern shock the world? You may not remember, but the Wildcats just about had Ohio State beaten in Evanston in late January before letting it get away. Northwestern had the ball in a tie game in the last 20 seconds before turning it over, then fouling Jared Sullinger with three seconds remaining. He made one free throw for the victory. With that as a backdrop, Northwestern doesn't go into this game lacking hope the way most of us probably think it should.
Three things I can't wait to see in Michigan-Illinois
  • Can the Wolverines sew up a bid? Actually, I think they probably already have, but with fellow bubble-dwellers such as Colorado, Boston College and Georgia winning, Michigan would enhance its peace of mind with a victory today. Nobody wants to spend all day Sunday dithering about whether they're playing in the Big Dance or the NIT.
  • Does Illinois have a run in it? The likelihood of the Illini making a major statement in this tournament seems remote, because they haven't won consecutive games since early January. But even though they're seemingly in the NCAA tournament, there needs to be some reason for Illinois fans to expect something noteworthy next week. Time to give them some hope.
  • Which guard shines brighter, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Demetri McCamey? Hardaway has been on fire lately, averaging more than 20 points per game in his last six -- and his famous father is in Indy to watch him this weekend. As for McCamey, the senior for Illinois has had a fairly disappointing senior season but has shot a higher percentage in the last four games -- he's 27-of-49 from the field in that span. In fact, McCamey's 18 points in Illinois' two-point victory last month triggered his return to form.
Three things I can't wait to see in Michigan State-Purdue
  • Can the Spartans walk, much less play? Point guard Kalin Lucas had an ice pack on his right ankle Thursday night after re-injuring it against Iowa. Power forward Delvon Roe had ice on his chronically problematic right knee, and playing back-to-back games will be tough for him. The Spartans don't have the bodies to endure a lot of injuries, especially in the backcourt.
  • Does Purdue bounce back? The Boilermakers have had a great season, but they ended the regular schedule with a brutal two-point loss at Iowa. A lot of people, including the NCAA selection committee, will be watching to see if that was a blip or the beginning of a negative trend. Getting a No. 2 seed could depend on the showing today.
  • How Purdue-intensive is the crowd? With Indiana having a terrible year and already being eliminated from the tournament, will Conseco Fieldhouse be an ocean of old gold and black? It will be tough to rattle veteran Michigan State, but having the fans behind you never hurts.
Three things I can't wait to see in Penn State-Wisconsin
  • Will Talor Battle ever sit down? The Nittany Lions point guard has played 238 of a possible 240 minutes in his last six games, including the full 40 Thursday night against Indiana. It will be tough to maintain that pace in Indy against a fresh Badgers team.
  • Will Jordan Taylor ever get sloppy with the ball? The Badgers point guard leads the nation in assist-to-turnover margin, and his numbers in that area have only gotten better in recent weeks. He has 24 assists and three turnovers in his last five games.
  • Can Penn State upset Wisconsin again? The Nittany Lions beat the Badgers in State College in late January and split the season series. Given their motivation level to keep winning and get into the NCAA tournament, expect the best that Penn State can bring to the table.

Spartans' Summers warms up at right time

March, 10, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Izzo sent in a sub for Durrell Summers with 15 minutes, 21 seconds left in the game Thursday. When Summers reached the Michigan State sideline, he looked longingly for a chair at the end of the bench.

No vacancy. He was going to have to take the only open seat -- right next to his exasperated head coach.

The two had done this dance too many times throughout this miserable season. Summers would play poorly. Izzo would bench him. He’d admonish, instruct, cajole, yell, plead … anything to get through to his talented senior guard.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Durrell Summers
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Durrell Summers (15) grabbed a key rebound and scored the Spartans' final seven points down the stretch.
Nothing much seemed to work. A guy who made big contributions on back-to-back Final Four teams floundered through the second half of the season, mirroring the Spartans’ profound struggles.

That continued in Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday against Iowa in a do-or-die Big Ten tournament game for the Spartans. A loss would doom their NCAA tourney chances. A win would keep them alive -- maybe even cement the bid.

Michigan State led 40-39 when Izzo yanked Summers for getting his third foul. At that point Summers had zero points, one rebound, no assists, no steals, four missed shots and three turnovers to his credit.

But Izzo won’t give up on his upperclassmen. So after his 957th attempt to reach Summers there on the bench, he sent him back in with 12:40 left to play.

The transformation was not immediate, but it was emphatic. By game’s end, Summers was one of the heroes of a 66-61 Michigan State triumph.

Draymond Green had the big numbers: 21 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Kalin Lucas chipped in 11 points and four assists. Keith Appling had 10. But nobody contributed more timely points than Summers.

He scored the Spartans’ final seven points -- a huge 3-pointer and four icy free throws. On the 3, he was wide open but hesitated for a moment before letting it fly from in front of the Michigan State bench with the Spartans clinging to a one-point lead.

“Guys were yelling from the bench, ‘Shoot it! Shoot it!,’“ Summers said.

He shot it. He swished it. It proved to be the winning points.

Summers also had a steal and a skywalking defensive rebound in the final 25 seconds. He finished with nine points, three boards, two steals and an immeasurable sense of relief.

“It was great,” teammate Delvon Roe said of seeing Summers step up in crunch time. “I was talking to Durrell the whole game. I kept telling him, ‘You’re good. You’re good.’“

Amazing that a guy who scored 21 big-time points in the regional final last year against Tennessee needed that kind of reassurance, but Summers did. In an eight-game stretch from Feb. 2 through March 2, he averaged fewer than six points and made just 6 of 29 3-point shots.

“There are no secrets that it’s been a disappointing year for him and a disappointing year for us,” Izzo said. “And I thought he struggled during the game, just fumbling the ball and doing some things. It all means he’s pressing. Sometimes if you just do a couple things to feel good about yourself, you can get over that. …

“That last shot was big. But I’m not kidding you, the rebounds were just about as big. … Hopefully it motivates him because if his buddy [Kalin Lucas] is able to go [Friday against Purdue], it probably won’t be at full speed, and we’re going to need some more bodies.”

Ah, yes, Lucas. The injury-plagued guard rolled his right ankle during the second half -- the same ankle he injured against Purdue a couple of weeks ago. Last year in the NCAA tournament he tore an Achilles tendon. It’s been a tough slog for Lucas this season, too.

He sat in the Spartans locker room afterward with an ice bag on his right ankle and vowed to play against the Boilermakers, even though he could barely get around the court for the final 13 minutes against Iowa. A few feet away, Roe had ice on his chronically inflamed right knee but vowed he’d be ready to take on Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson.

“I feel good,” Roe said, because the kid is hard-wired to be tough and never complain.

Make no mistake, Michigan State is hurting heading into a matchup with a top-10 team that has beaten it twice already this season. The odds are long -- but no team seems to respond to the pressure of tournament play like the Spartans.

“It’s March time,” Lucas said. “March time is one-and-done time. We know if we lose the next game we’re going home, and we don’t want to go home.”

Durrell Summers, of all unlikely suspects, kept the Spartans from going home Thursday. They’ll need him even more Friday.

Video: Michigan State's Kalin Lucas

March, 10, 2011

Kalin Lucas talks about his injured ankle and Michigan State’s win over Iowa.

Rapid Reaction: Michigan State 66, Iowa 61

March, 10, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- With its NCAA tournament bid hanging in the balance, Michigan State rallied from a seven-point deficit midway through the second half and then held on in the final minutes to beat Iowa 66-61.The Spartans overcame a second-half right leg injury that limited guard Kalin Lucas and made just enough plays to eke out a victory over the 11-20 Hawkeyes.

Turning point: Down 52-45, State got some key stops and scored on five straight possessions to take a 55-54 lead. The Spartans never again relinquished the lead, although it got down to a single point in the final 90 seconds.

Key player: Durrell Summers. The senior guard has had a horrible season, but he scored the Spartans' final seven points to pull them through.

Key stat: Facing at-large bid elimination, Michigan State reverted to an old staple to pull this one out. It hit the glass. Michigan State outrebounded the Hawkeyes by eight, led by Draymond Green's 14 total rebounds and six on the offensive glass.

Miscellaneous: All-Big Ten freshman Melsahn Basabe was benched by Iowa coach Fran McCaffery for the final minutes after some poor possessions in which he turned over the ball on a somewhat selfish offensive move and failed to hustle back defensively.

What’s next: Michigan State will face Purdue on Friday in a game that would seemingly cinch a bid. Iowa's season is over.
If your only source of information on Korie Lucious was the Michigan State guard's Twitter feed, you'd probably think Lucious had too many breadsticks at dinner.

Late Tuesday night, as Tom Izzo released a statement revealing his season-long dismissal of his junior guard for "conduct detrimental to the program," Lucious himself reacted to the news on his Twitter account. His tweet -- bound to enter Michigan State lore, and already generating some rather hilarious 140-character comedy -- was simply this: "Man did I really mess up this 2 the gym I go!"

If that apparently unironic missive seems like the work of someone who maybe just doesn't quite get it, apparently Izzo and the Spartans agree.

What other explanation is there for Izzo's sudden, unexpected decision? We don't know what Lucious did. Like so many collegiate dismissals, the terms of the announcement were left intentionally vague by both coach and player and, per the usual, it will probably take between a day and a week, and maybe longer, for anything more than rumor and innuendo to emerge from the conspicuous silence.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo and Korie Lucious
AP Photo/Charles CherneyTom Izzo dismissed guard Korie Lucious from the team for "conduct detrimental to the program."
Thing is, the reason doesn't really matter. Whatever line Lucious crossed -- and he was already on thin ice after his suspension related to a charge for driving while intoxicated in the offseason (he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving) -- it was enough for Izzo to kick him off the team in the middle of one of the more disappointing seasons in the vaunted coach's career. The Spartans were already a struggling, underachieving, baffling bunch. It now appears they're in crisis.

You know the story of MSU's season by now, but just in case you missed something: Michigan State entered the season ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Spartans returned the core of a team that made its second straight Final Four appearance in April, including star guard Kalin Lucas, who missed the 2010 tournament run thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left heel.

Throw in a celebrated recruiting class and an expected dose of Izzo's masterful tournament wizardry, and it's no wonder the Spartans were seen as the one true threat to Duke's reign in 2010-11, and no wonder Michigan State forward Draymond Green told me he expected to win the national title at Big Ten media day in October. Of course he did. Why wouldn't he?

Those were halcyon days. Since then, the Spartans have been exposed by quality opponents (Duke, Texas, Connecticut, et al) and conference also-rans (Penn State) alike thanks to a turnover-prone and inconsistent offense that can't seem to get its considerable talent -- players like Lucas, Green and Durrell Summers, to name a few -- to congeal into anything resembling a competent side. Instead of competing for a Big Ten title, Michigan State has stumbled to a 12-7 record after 19 games, including a 4-3 mark in Big Ten play, and the Spartans have been noticeably reeling all the while.

It hasn't been much better of the court. After all, the Lucious dismissal isn't Izzo's first personnel issue of the season. The coach dismissed guard Chris Allen in August after a prolonged deliberation period during which Allen worked out with the team and told the media he expected to return before his coach eventually sent him packing. Allen's absence has left a noticeable gap; without him the Spartans lack a consistent long-range threat. It's one of the main reasons -- alongside Michigan State's ongoing and much-discussed turnover woes -- Sparty hasn't scored at an efficient rate this season.

There have also been issues with the inconsistent Summers, who Izzo benched for a "lack of enthusiasm," as well as forward Derrick Nix, who nearly left the team in November over concerns about his playing time. In the meantime, Izzo was himself suspended for a silly recruiting violation incurred at MSU's summer camp.

Here's the thing: Izzo is occasionally -- OK, frequently -- treated with deference by the media. It's no surprise why. For one, he's very, very good at his job. More than that, though, Izzo is genuine, professional, and considerate in his dealings with the ink-stained, quote-starved wretches in the interview room, most of whom just want coaches to treat them with the same respect those same coaches demand of their players and staff. (Unless of course those media members are trying to figure out whether he plans to leave the Spartans for the Cleveland Cavaliers job. As Izzo himself admitted, that was not his finest hour.)

You attract more flies with honey than vinegar, which is a horrible cliché but also happens to be true, and Izzo has attracted plenty of flies in his tenure at Michigan State. You can question whether that should be true or not -- some fans tend to think reporters are whining when they complain about coaches who thrive on psychological press conference power plays, and maybe those fans have a point -- but like it or not, it is true.

All of which was a wordy way to preface this: You can probably expect some folks to claim Izzo is being "brave" by dismissing Lucious at this point in the season. Some will argue that he's "taking a stand" and "setting an example" and "sacrificing wins for the good of his program." All of which is probably correct. But it's also correct to say that this Michigan State team -- a team with enough talent to make it to the Final Four without its best player eight months ago -- has been a disappointing mess from the moment it took the floor in November.

Does anyone think Izzo has had a good season? Are the Spartans improving in any tangible way? Why can't this team get control of its destructive addiction to turnovers? Why haven't Summers and Delvon Roe developed into consistent players? Why hasn't Izzo told Lucas to stop shooting so many inefficient long-range 2s? And -- most importantly -- why has the past year been a nonstop rush of personnel issues and off-court drama? If I'm a Spartans fan, I may think Izzo is a god, but I'm still asking those questions. Among many others.

Fortunately for those fans, believe it or not, there is some good news here. For one, Michigan State still has the majority of its Big Ten schedule left to play, and if we know anything about Michigan State under Tom Izzo -- and in particular this group of players -- it's that it's never too late to figure things out just in time for a surprising tournament run. First rule of college basketball punditry: Discount the Spartans at your own risk.

The other bit of sunshine is that Lucious, for all his brilliant shot-making ability, was not a particularly effective player this season. His offensive rating to date is 92.9 (which is below average nationally). He shot 28.4 percent from beyond the arc despite having the second-most long-range attempts (81) on his team. He turned the ball over on 24.8 percent of his possessions, and his effective field goal percentage (40.4) was the lowest of any Michigan State player.

Lucious' suddenly available minutes are likely to go to freshman guard Keith Appling, who hasn't exactly set the world ablaze himself, but who has been a much more accurate shooter all season long. If the Spartans can get Appling to take care of the ball -- something neither he nor Lucious have done well this season -- this team might even improve.

Of course, there's also the chance that Izzo's decision snaps MSU out of its season-long funk, imbuing this team with a much-needed sense of urgency for a critical February stretch run. You never know.

In reality, though, this dismissal is basically what it looks like: A struggling, disappointing, distraction-riddled team canning one of its starters at just the moment it desperately needs experience, leadership and -- most of all -- effective guard play. If things were already bad in East Lansing, on Tuesday night they officially got worse.

It's enough to make a Spartans fan want to blow off some steam. As Lucious himself might suggest: Off to the gym you go?

Rapid Reaction: Syracuse 72, MSU 58

December, 8, 2010
Our own Andy Katz will have a full recap later tonight, but in the meantime here are some quick thoughts on Syracuse’s 72-58 win over Michigan State.
  • Syracuse’s famed zone is as good as ever. This is no surprise -- you can’t spell “Syracuse” without “2-3 zone.” (OK, so you can, but just go with it.) And this zone isn’t a sit-back-and-force-bad-shots type of 2-3, though it does have that effect. The Orange zone extends, pressures shooters, forces turnovers and slides seamlessly from one end of the court to the other. Michigan State was able to find gaps here and there, but more often than not (and especially in the first half), the Spartans were stuck tossing the ball around on the perimeter, trying and failing to get Draymond Green a touch at the top of the key. And when Michigan State did break down the zone, Syracuse’s lengthy interior defenders were there to erase the opportunity. A thoroughly impressive defensive effort.
  • In the meantime, Michigan State becomes the best -- and most maddening -- 6-3 team in the country. If this was any other team, you’d ask for someone to kindly show you where the beef is. (If only there were a catchier way of asking that question.) But MSU’s losses have come against very good teams. All of them have come in either neutral or hostile environments. And the Spartans have flashed plenty of Final Four potential in each. The problem, as always: turnovers. MSU gave the ball away 16 times on Tuesday night, which is in character, given that Michigan State entered the game as one of the worst teams in the country in turnover percentage. At some point, this group is going to have to learn how to take care of the ball. If it doesn't, we’ll still be here in February talking about how good the Spartans look, and how they’ll figure it out come March, and how much better they'd be if they could just keep control of the ball. Cross file that one under “Tom Izzo” and “nightmare scenario.” In other words: The time to stop turning the ball over is now.
  • Speaking of which, did you see Izzo’s face on the bench as the final seconds ticked away? Cross file that one under “locker room speeches” and “glad I won’t be there.”
  • Syracuse is not a 3-point shooting team, and knows it. The Orange attempted a mere 11 3s and made only two of them. This team is at its best when attacking the rim, and they were at their best Tuesday night. Rick Jackson opened the game with a dunk-fest, and Syracuse was able to get to the rim in multiple hyphenated ways -- post-ups, curl-screens, dribble-drives, dump-offs, all of it. The Cuse will have to make some shots eventually -- there are good shooters on this team -- but until that day, they seem to have the whole “get easy looks” thing down pat.
  • Most impressive for Syracuse? Jackson, of course: 17 points, 16 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end. That’s an obvious one. But Scoop Jardine, who got his 19 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting, wasn’t too bad either.
  • Most impressive for Michigan State? Durrell Summers scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds, though he was characteristically off-and-on from beyond the arc. And though he only scored 6 points, Draymond Green continued his impressive streak of versatile play with an 11-rebound, five-assist, three-steal night.
  • Oh, and Kalin Lucas still doesn’t look 100 percent. Whether the Achilles is still sore, or Lucas is still just rusty from the lost offseason, he’s clearly missing his touch and, like the rest of his team, is struggling to hold onto the ball (Lucas had six turnovers Tuesday).
  • I think we’re officially past the physical feeling-out point of the year for both players and referees. This game was physical, but never overly so. The refs let both teams play, but never let the game turn into a slugfest. There were questionable calls here and there -- aren’t there always? -- but in general, it was great to see an officiating crew let the game unfold with a good sense of where the line eventually had to be drawn.
  • At this point in his career, the best description for Korie Lucious is “shotmaker.” Lucious is still a little too turnover-prone to be truly efficient, but his ability to break down defenders and hit shots from everywhere -- whether a set shot from behind the arc or slightly fading from 15 feet -- has kept the Spartans in more than one game this season.
  • Did we mention that Michigan State needs to stop turning the ball over? Have we talked about this enough already? Because, yeah, wow. Michigan State really needs to stop turning the ball over. Basketball is a mysterious fig, but sometimes it’s pretty simple. This is one of those times.

Saddle Up is our daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Tonight's installment focuses primarily on the Jimmy V Classic. Why? Because look at these games! That's why.

No. 14 Memphis vs. No. 4 Kansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Who are the Memphis Tigers? The truth is, even after seven wins in seven games, we still don't know.

That has a lot to do with Memphis' nonconference schedule to this point. The Tigers have played only two teams with a shot at making the NCAA tournament thus far (Miami and Western Kentucky, both at home) and while they handled both opponents with relative ease, they've also struggled at times, especially in a narrow overtime win over Arkansas State last week. Tonight's matchup with Kansas will be, without question, Memphis' first entreé into the realm of the elite, and thanks to a paltry schedule, we have few indicators as to how Josh Pastner's team will perform against top competition. Is this a team destined to win a conference title and little more? Or can this team reach for the Final Four?

It's not just schedule, though. Our questions about the Tigers also have to do with personnel. Pastner's team is heavy on freshmen, which is a little like saying the ocean is heavy on water. The wunderkind coach snared a top-four recruiting class in 2010, and those first-year players have wasted no time claiming the majority of Memphis' offensive responsibilities. Four of the Tigers' five biggest contributors on a per-possession basis are freshmen: Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Chris Crawford and Tarik Black all average between 28.1 and 20.0 percent in usage rate. Jackson, who owns that 28.1 percent, has especially dominated the ball.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMemphis coach Josh Pastner and his young team face their first serious test in No. 4 Kansas.
Those freshmen have been effective, but on an inconsistent basis. In fact, the most efficient offensive player on the team has been junior Wesley Witherspoon, who has combined an impressive ability to get to the line -- Witherspoon shoots free throws more often than any other player in the country -- with highly accurate shooting from the field.

What does all this mean? It means a team dominated by freshmen should think about getting its junior forward involved as often as possible. That could stand as a general rule, but it makes extra sense tonight (in so far as something can make "extra sense," I guess). Memphis is forced to make up for its lack of interior size and experience with athleticism on the wing. That won't change against Kansas, which has a handful of viable forwards (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey) who excel on the defensive glass but are sporadically foul-prone. To have a chance against a team like KU, the Tigers have to do what they do best on offense: get to the free throw line.

Meanwhile, Memphis' biggest task on defense will be finding someone to deal with the aforementioned Morii. The Morris twins are almost perfectly complementary: Marcus is the elite stretch-post scorer, Markieff the standout rebounder, particularly on the defensive end. Until Josh Selby finishes his NCAA-mandated suspension, KU's forwards will continue to key the team's success on both ends of the floor. That's been going well so far -- Kansas is No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's overall adjusted efficiency ranking, after all -- but as UCLA showed us Thursday, the Jayhawks are far from complete, and far from invincible.

Still, they'll be by far the biggest challenge these Memphis freshmen have faced so far. So how good are they? How good are the Memphis Tigers? We're about to get a pretty good idea.

(For more on Memphis and Kansas, read Dana O'Neil's preview here.)

No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 7 Syracuse, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present reason No. 5,498 that rankings don't matter.

Syracuse is ranked a spot higher than Michigan State in the latest coaches' poll, but few would consider Syracuse the better team right now, or the better prospect to make the Final Four by the end of the season. Michigan State's diminished ranking is due to two losses -- vs. the Connecticut Kemba Walkers in Maui, and at Duke last Wednesday night -- that hardly indict the Spartans as pretenders. Meanwhile, Syracuse is undefeated at 8-0, but six of those wins came at home, and at least four of them came after nail-biting affairs with so-so teams like William & Mary (63-60), Michigan (53-50), Georgia Tech (80-76), and NC State (65-59). There might not be a tourney team in that bunch. It's not exactly the most glittering résumé.

What's wrong with Syracuse? Why hasn't Jim Boeheim's team been blowing opponents out? Start with shooting: Syracuse is averaging 29.7 percent from 3, 49.8 percent from 2, and 63.0 percent from the foul line. Absent anyone with consistent outside shooting ability -- Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson are not walking through that door -- the Orange have been getting by on a steady diet of offensive rebounds and low-turnover hoops. And, of course, Boeheim's fabled 2-3 zone. The zone is working yet again; Syracuse almost never fouls opposing shooters -- it ranks No. 5 in opponent free throw rate -- and the Orange have contained outside shooting and forced enough turnovers to squeak by against mediocre competition.

Michigan State, as you might have heard, is not mediocre. The Spartans are already quite good at pretty much -- key phrase there -- everything. They shoot the ball well, both from beyond the arc (41.7 percent) and inside it (52.3 percent). They stifle opposing scorers. They clean up on the glass, especially on defense. Draymond Green is as versatile and effective as big men get. Kalin Lucas has already showed plenty of his pre-Achilles tear self. Durrell Summers can be an unstoppable scorer. The Spartans' front court is deep and physical. Korie Lucious might be the best reserve point guard in the country. (Given his usage rate, Lucious barely qualifies as a reserve.) The list goes on and on.

The only thing holding Michigan State back? (Here's where that "pretty much" rears its ugly head.) Turnovers. The Spartans are one of the worst teams in the country at wasting possessions with turnovers. Izzo's team turns the ball over on 25.8 percent of its possessions, ranking it No. 325 in the stat; the only major-conference teams giving the ball away more frequently are Baylor and Florida State.

That sounds bad enough on paper, but it was evident in action Wednesday night at Duke. Michigan State turned the ball over 20 times on the road against the best team in the country, and somehow still had a chance to win. Turnovers have been a recurring blight on Izzo's otherwise brilliantly coached teams in recent years, and if Michigan State wants to accomplish its goals -- this year, that means national title or bust -- it has to find a way to cut down on giveaways.

How does this play out tonight? If recent trends hold, Michigan State should take, and make, a lot of 3-pointers. It will stifle Syracuse's sputtering scorers from the outside-in. And the game will be close, because the Spartans will give the ball away far too often.

Both teams need to break the cycle of self-defeating tendencies. What better time than now?

(For more on Michigan State and Syracuse, read Andy Katz's preview here.)

Spartans, Orange relying on youth

December, 7, 2010

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).

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo and Kalin Lucas
AP Photo/Al GoldisKalin Lucas is still working his way back to full speed for Tom Izzo.
“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.

Syracuse (8-0) is looking at similar issues but needs freshmen Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and centers Baye Moussa Keita and Fab Melo even more so than Izzo may need Appling and Payne.

The Orange have veterans in Joseph, big man Rick Jackson and guard tandem of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. But the development of the freshmen will determine how far this team goes in March.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim and Fab Melo
Marc Squire/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim is counting on contributions from young players like Fab Melo.
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.

Kalin Lucas still not 100 percent

December, 7, 2010
Tom Izzo's teams play tough nonconference schedules. At the end of the year, they're almost always better prepared for the NCAA tournament because of it. But tough, travel-heavy non-con slates do take their toll, especially on players recovering from injuries.

Such is the case with Kalin Lucas. Lucas has been productive in his return from last year's season-ending Achilles tear, but Izzo has told reporters all along that he expected Lucas to have an early-season recovery curve, and thus far, he's been right. From the Detroit Free Press:
On Saturday, senior leader Kalin Lucas complained of stiffness in the left Achilles tendon that was ruptured in March and asked not to play in the second half against Bowling Green unless MSU really needed him. The Spartans beat the Falcons, 74-39.

"I told you at the beginning of the year that I didn't think that Kalin would be Kalin until the middle of December, end of December," Izzo said after that game. "I said the Maui thing would tell a lot."

Again, Lucas has been good -- he's averaging 14.9 points in 28.1 minutes per game this season -- but he hasn't looked all the way right. Wednesday's game at Duke was in line with this observation. Lucas was fine, but he wasn't his typically explosive self, and it was noticeable on several finishes near the rim where Lucas seemed to lack the strength to hold a larger defender off with his body and finish the play. The guard is missing maybe a half-step or so of his usual speed. That speed is what makes a healthy Lucas unguardable with the ball in his hands.

Anyway, Michigan State's brutal nonconference schedule rolls on with a game versus Syracuse in New York City tonight. It'll be interesting to see if the rest against Bowling Green will yield a faster Lucas. If so, maybe the Spartans start treating Lucas like a recovering major league pitcher, using games against lighter competition to allow him rest and recovery. Post-Syracuse dates include games against Oakland on Dec. 11 and Prairie View A&M on Dec. 18. The opportunity is there.

Kalin Lucas saves Spartans from shocker

November, 23, 2010

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- During the afternoon, Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker put on a dominating 31-point performance to save his team from an upset. At night, Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas did the same to help hold off a spunky Chaminade team, 82-74, in the first round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Lucas had a career-high 28 points against the underdog Division II host, which led for much of the first 25 minutes of the game. Draymond Green added 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kalin Lucas
AP Photo/Eugene TannerKalin Lucas scored 28 points in a closer-than-expected win over Division II Chaminade.
But it was Lucas' relentless drives to the basket, combined with his ability to get out in transition after some stifling defense, that fueled a second-half surge that put MSU into the semifinal round against UConn on Tuesday.

Chaminade rode a wave of hot shooting from guard Steven Bennett (20 points, 10 assists) and some dominant play in the middle from USC transfer Mamadou Diarra (16 points, 11 reb, 5 blocks) to keep things close in front of a vocal hometown crowd.

The Silverswords are the Washington Generals of this tournament. Their all-time record here is 5-71. But they are known for a huge upset win against Ralph Sampson's No. 1 Virginia team in the early 80s and tried their best to recreate that magic tonight before running out of gas at the end of the game.

For Michigan State, this victory will come with its fair share of concerns. Senior guard Durrell Summers pulled a classic disappearing act for much of the game and the team's big men struggled to score or defend in the paint against Diarra. The Spartans were out rebounded by the Silverswords 31-28.

"I was disappointed in our defense and rebounding more than anything," coach Tom Izzo said. "Thank God for Kalin and Draymond. I don't think he [Lucas] took a bad shot all night. We should be pushing the ball more. If you don't rebound the ball, you don't push it. As we say in any tournament, it's about surviving and advancing."

Next up for Michigan State is a spunky UConn team led by Kemba Walker and a physical inside presence, Alex Oriakhi. The Walker-Lucas matchup should be a terrific point guard battle between two of the top veteran college point guards in the country.

"He's a great player," Lucas said of Walker after the game. "I'm looking forward to it. We have to keep six eyes on him."

If Oriakhi can control the glass the way Diarra did, the Huskies should be able to keep it competitive against the second-ranked team in the country.

The drill, you know it. Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Big Ten this season:

1. How -- and whether -- Purdue recovers

At the risk of overplaying the Robbie Hummel story (he was, after all, the story of Big Ten media day, too), I'm going with this at No. 1. To me, there is no greater intrigue in the league this season than in finding out just what effect Hummel's ACL tear will have on his team in 2010-11. We know from last year's injury that the forward added far more to Purdue's offense than to its defense. Purdue's offensive efficiency drastically declined after Hummel's first ACL tear last February (thanks in large part to a couple of 40-point stinkers in games against Michigan State and Minnesota, the latter of which saw the Boilermakers score 11 points in the first half), but there was some sign Purdue had righted the points-per-possession ship during their run to the Sweet 16. Defensively, the Boilers were not only fine, they were better with Hummel out; coach Matt Painter changed his team's style, focusing less on offensive rebounds demanding his team get behind the ball with all five players. With Chris Kramer still patrolling the perimeter, and a much more careful Boilermakers team on the floor, Purdue ended the season with the third-most efficient defense in the country.

The problem is that not all of Hummel's contributions, even on the offensive end, are quantifiable. Hummel's versatility as a point forward with 3-point range opened the lane for JaJuan Johnson and made it difficult to impossible to double the big man on the elbow and short post. Hummel drew a high number of fouls, distributed the ball well without turning it over, and was in many ways a glue guy who played with the efficiency of a star. Kramer's defense (and sneaky good, fourth-option-type offense) is also a major loss. Painter is a more than capable coach with more time than last year to figure out how to replace Hummel (and now Kramer), and he has a large amount of depth to utilize in that process. But it's hard to imagine these Boilermakers being as good as last year's pre-ACL version.

[+] EnlargeKalin Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMIThe return of a healthy Kalin Lucas makes the Spartans one of the nation's most talented teams.
2. A healthy Kalin Lucas

It's no wonder Michigan State is ranked just behind Duke in just about everyone's preseason top 25. The Spartans went to their second-straight Final Four in 2009-10 without the help of their best player, guard Kalin Lucas, who was a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year until an Achilles tear forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. The 2010-11 version gets Lucas -- and everyone not named Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen -- back. Toss in a talented recruiting class with at least one likely contributor (freshman Keith Appling) already in the mix, and you get a loaded, experienced team as talented as any in the country. The real draw, though, is Lucas -- how he recovers, how he leads, and how he closes his Michigan State career after being forced to watch from the sidelines during last year's triumphant and unexpected finish.

3. Bruce Weber's best team in years

Even in down years, Bruce Weber's teams did one thing. They defended. Weber is a defensive coach, and his ability to get his players to play stifling man-to-man defense out to 30 feet has been one reason why a lack of talent in the post-Deron Williams era hasn't gotten him in more trouble with his fan base. But no such problem exists this season: Illinois returns all five starters from last year's team. Three seniors, including All-Big Ten preseason pick Demetri McCamey, are back. Last year's two highly touted freshman -- Brandon Paul and Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson -- will look to make the freshman-to-sophomore leap. And another big-time recruiting class, including forward Jereme Richmond, the No. 23-ranked player in the class of 2010, shouldn't need much time to make an impact. There is no small amount of expectation surrounding this team: The Big Ten's media picked Illinois to finish fourth behind Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, and the Illini are ranked No. 13 in the AP preseason poll. That's a big jump in expectations for a defensively mediocre team that limped to an NIT finish last season, but it's a warranted one. Now Weber just has to remember how to get his guys to play defense. With all that talent, the offensive end -- and an NCAA tournament bid -- should take care of itself.

4. Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
AP Photo/Terry GilliamJared Sullinger, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2010, replaces Evan Turner in OSU's lineup.
Losing a high-usage player of the year like Evan Turner isn't the sort of thing your program is supposed to immediately overcome. But Sullinger, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2010, could push the 2010-11 version of the Buckeyes to be even better than last year's team. The four non-Turner starters -- versatile guards William Buford and David Lighty, sharpshooter Jon Diebler, and bruising center Dallas Lauderdale -- return. By plugging Sullinger (not to mention top small forward prospect DeShaun Thomas) in, Ohio State won't have to play four guards this season. They won't lack frontcourt depth when Lauderdale gets in foul trouble. They won't have to play their starters an insane number of minutes. And, if Sullinger plays to expectations, they'll have as effective a low-block scorer as any team in the country. It's hard to pick Ohio State over Michigan State to start the season, but by the end of it, Ohio State could very well deserve that distinction. They might just be the second-best team in the country.

5. Another ho-hum Wisconsin season

And rest assured, denizens of Madison: I mean "ho-hum" in the most complimentary way possible. This is a stat I've written before, but one that bears repeating: In Bo Ryan's tenure, the Badgers have failed to finish worse than fourth in the Big Ten exactly zero times. In nine seasons, the Badgers have failed to win 20 games only twice, and failed to win more than 24 games three times. The man and his program are models of consistency. That consistency hasn't exactly translated into tournament success; Ryan's teams have been past the second round of the NCAA tournament only three times in his tenure, and they've gotten past the Sweet 16 just once. But, still, how good must it feel to be a Wisconsin fan? To know, before the season even starts, that your team is going to be in the Big Ten mix?

That feeling shouldn't change this season. Wisconsin lost guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, but it returned Jordan Taylor and potential Big Ten Player of the Year Jon Leuer, an efficient high-usage forward who rebounds on the defensive end and scores from everywhere on offense. He's perfect for Ryan's slow-swing system, and Ryan's system is perfect for the Big Ten. The Badgers will have to make sure last year's stellar turnover rate stays something near to stellar, and the loss of those experienced guards will be an early challenge, but would you wager, even in a very tough Big Ten, on a Bo Ryan team finishing outside the league's top four? There's no reason to start now.

Korie Lucious gets more bad news

September, 29, 2010
As if Michigan State's offseason needed another bit of news, one more bit of excitement, an added dash of spice to what is already an overseasoned dish. Most Spartans fans would kindly like the season to start soon; it seems their team is unable to make it more than a few weeks without another ostensibly negative headline.

This time, and not for the first, the headline involves junior point guard Korie Lucious. Per a release from MSU media relations, Lucious underwent "successful knee arthroscopy for a small meniscus tear in his left knee on Tuesday afternoon." Lucious is expected to miss anywhere from two to six weeks. His coach, Tom Izzo, is feeling rather bad about that:
"I feel bad for Korie," said head coach Tom Izzo. "He's had a great fall on the court, playing some of the best basketball of his time at Michigan State. The injury is similar to the one Goran Suton had during his senior year, and he was able to return in a short amount of time. We expect that Korie will heal in a similar fashion."

For what it's worth, arthroscopic surgery is one of humankind's foremost medical miracles. Lucious should take solace in knowing that modern medical science has made it possible for him to suffer what sounds like a serious injury -- it is never encouraging to hear the word "tear" in regards to one's knee -- in relatively short order. With two weeks until Midnight Madness and about six weeks until Michigan State opens its season, he might not even miss any games.

Still, it adds another issue for Lucious and Izzo to deal with on top of August's arrest for operating while intoxicated. (Lucious, who is under 21, was caught driving with a blood alcohol content of .09. It was his first offense and he plead guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor reckless driving.) It looks like Izzo isn't going to suspend Lucious for the incident, but now, with the injury, that might not matter. What will matter is whether highly touted freshman guard Keith Appling can step in and play valuable minutes right away.

If so, Michigan State won't miss a step. If not, the Spartans could, as they are wont to do under Izzo, get off to an uncomfortably slow start.