January 26, 2011

DotComp: Sorting through the Lucious wreckage

EAST LANSING - Korie Lucious hugged Tom Izzo tighter, longer and harder than anyone else last June, at the podium, after Izzo announced he was staying at Michigan State.

Five months earlier, Lucious was tired of Izzo's disciplined demands and contemplated leaving the program. Izzo told Lucious he could leave, but only if Korie's mother agreed. She didn't agree. She wanted Korie to stay with Izzo. So he had to stay. Izzo kind of figured it would work out that way.

Yet Izzo probably always feared that eventually things would work out the way they did Tuesday night, when Michigan State announced in a press release, sent at 11:02 p.m., that Lucious "had been dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season."

Izzo offered a two-sentence statement on the matter: "Unfortunately, Korie Lucious displayed conduct detrimental to the program. My focus is on this team for the remainder of the season."

MSU released the following statement from Lucious:

"I didn't live up to the standards of the program. Unfortunately, I let my teammates, my coaches, and myself down, and wish them the best for the rest of the season."

The brief press release concluded with the following statement: "Michigan State University and the Spartan basketball program will have no further comment on this issue."

This doesn't seem to be one of Izzo's tough love moves, as was the case last Feb. 13 when Izzo left Lucious at home with a one-game suspension while the Spartans traveled for a game at Penn State. Izzo said that suspension was due to an accumulation of matters.

Izzo said the same thing about the suspension of Chris Allen prior to last year's Big Ten Tournament, stating that the decision was borne out of more than one single transgression.

Allen never sufficiently straightened up. Izzo dismissed him from the program in August. Izzo believed that move was addition by subtraction.

Although Lucious has been a challenging handful at times, I don't get the sense that Izzo handed down this suspension was an addition-by-subtraction necessity.

In the end, Izzo wanted to get rid of Allen. I don't think Izzo wanted to get rid of Lucious. And for that reason, this suspension will leave a bigger void on the Spartan playing group and put a sizable dent into Michigan State's chances of getting things turned around and headed toward the Spartans' dream of going to a third straight Final Four and competing for the National Championship.

Izzo seems to be leaving the door open for Lucious to potentially return next year. The exact language of Tuesday's press release stated clearly that he was dismissed from the team for the "remainder of the year," not necessarily permanently. Lucious is a junior. He potentially could rejoin the Spartans next season.

One hour before Michigan State released news of Lucious's dismissal, Lucious posted on Twitter: "Man did I really mess up this time...off 2 the gym I go!"

It sounds to me like he is not leaving school, and still has access to the gyms, and is already working toward a return next year. I wouldn't be surprised if he is back with the Spartans next season, although Izzo is probably so disappointed with Lucious right now that even if Izzo sees that as a possibility for next season, the head coach wouldn't come out and illustrate it that way to the young man, and instead let Lucious stew on the ramifications of his errors for several months.

They Are Going To Miss Him

A few weeks after Lucious defiantly remained a member of the MSU basketball team last winter, he hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Maryland in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Then the entire keys of the offense were handed to Lucious as the new starting point guard for the Sweet 16, after Kalin Lucas sustained an Achilles tendon injury against Maryland. Lucious played more minutes than in any games in his career in helping lead the Spartans to two more victories and a second straight trip to the Final Four.

He had grown up. His process was a bit rockier than the treks forged by Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and other less-than-perfect personalities who have played under Izzo. But the earlier problems with Lucious now seemed adolescent, and in the past. Izzo had connected. The future looked delicious. Hence the hugs, on stage, in June.

I was surprised by those hugs, being that tight, that long, that heart-felt. I expected Lucious to transfer during the off-season, not because of distaste for Izzo and Michigan State, but because of where Lucious was with his career. He had experienced a grand, shining moment as the point guard for a Final Four team, and had contributed arguably the single best moment of the entire NCAA Tournament by any player.

Now he was going to go from being 30-minute-per-game Final Four star back to being a 20-minute-per-game back-up to Lucas, as a junior? I just didn't expect him to make that concession. But he did. He came back to Izzo, back to MSU, back to the discipline, back to the demands, back to an off-the-bench role. I was impressed. It was a selfless move. He likes this team, likes this coach.

Izzo and Lucious battled through some cranky times in practice last year. But I didn't see any of that father vs. teen-ager stuff this year. I'm sure there have been the usual challenges and prods from Izzo. But Izzo clearly grew to like this knucklehead more than he might have thought he could a year ago, and vice-versa.

Izzo still wanted to strangle Lucious whenever the little point guard committed a turnover with a flashy attempted pass, rather than executing a smarter, safer technique. But Izzo was growing to like this guy. Even after Lucious was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in late August, a charge which was later reduced to reckless driving.

Izzo suspended Lucious for two games, due to the arrest. With the arrest came probation. Do these latest problems of Lucious's stem from a violation of that probation, or a violation of team rules? We may never know. But whatever the transgression, even though it was Lucious's third trip to the principal's office, it wasn't enough to merit a quick, outright dismissal from the program, as was the case with Allen. That's why I'm left thinking that Izzo will feel worse for the team than anything in light of Lucious's suspension.

Lucious is a knucklhead. But Izzo seemed to feel he was making progress with him. Lucious is/was a positive, well-liked guy around the locker room. Whereas Chris Allen never sufficiently straightened-up, I didn't get the sense that Izzo felt or feels that way about Lucious. Thus, the door still seems open for Lucious to return. MSU got rid of Allen in order to help the team. I don't get the idea that this was the case with Lucious's dismissal. I think Izzo knows this dismissal is going to hurt, and he wishes it hadn't happened.

If Izzo had had enough of Lucious, Tuesday's press release would have stated that Lucious was dismissed from the program and Izzo would assist in helping Lucious transfer to another school. That isn't the case. And with that comes my belief that Izzo wishes Lucious were still part of this team, this year. Deep down, I'm sure Izzo fears that they are going to miss Lucious.

Emerging From Misery

Lucious has had a miserable January. This suspension comes during a time in which Lucious is suffering through the worst slump of his college career. In MSU's first games since the New Year, Lucious had scored just 6, 5, 3, 3 and 3 points.

This is a guy who scored 20 at Duke on Dec. 1, and a guy who lit up the big stage with a monster 3-pointer as a freshman to help lift the Spartans past Louisville in the Regional Finals in '09, and then follwed up with 11 points in just nine minutes against UConn at the '09 Final Four.

He has been a fearless player. The bigger the moment, the better he played.

He's a streak shooter, who has enjoyed stretches of 40-percent hotness from 3-point range throughout his career.

However, he went cold midway through last season.

He went colder at mid-season this year. He was 3-of-21 from 3-point range (14 percent) this month, prior to hitting a meaningless 3-pointer in the final minute of Saturday's loss at Purdue.

Or was it meaningless? Izzo didn't think so at the time. Izzo coached the last two minutes of that loss not as the last two minutes of an uncomfortable defeat, but as the next two minutes of the rest of the season.

Only at Michigan State can you be 12-7 and still talk with a straight face about aiming for a National Championship. Izzo still is. Or at least he was.

Michigan State plays host to Michigan on Thursday. This is the soft portion of the schedule, finally. I expected Michigan State to win four of its next five, and then serve as a legitimate threat to hang with Ohio State on Feb. 15 in Columbus. If you can hang with OSU in Columbus this Febaruary, you can beat anyone in March.

I have been impressed with the improvement of Michigan State's defense, rebounding and ball control in the last four games, even through the two losses at Illinois and Purdue last week. Hey, Michigan State has gone to a lot of Final Fours under Izzo after losing at Purdue and Illinois.

MSU was 2-6 in February last year, and still went to the Final Four, coming within one basket of playing for the National Championship for a second straight year.

The year before, Michigan State suffered the indignity of losing at home to Northwestern and Penn State. MSU also was beaten by 20 or more points three times during the course of the year, yet still navigated through the NCAA Tournament field and played for the National Title.

This year, I saw the potential to make a similar trek. Others picked MSU as the No. 2 team in the nation in the preseason. I did not. I knew this team lacked a guy who could stop a good small forward, and I didn't see anyone on the roster capable of filling that necessary role, not without Allen.

But I didn't foresee Delvon Roe becoming a defensive stopper at power forward. I didn't foresee freshman Keith Appling come along as a potential defensive stopper at the two.

Still, the Spartans had no one who could guard a good small forward, and that came to the forefront on Saturday when Purdue's E'Twaun Moore went crazy in the first half. But then in the second half, Izzo challenged Summers' manhood, and put the athletic, 6-foot-5 Summers on Moore. Izzo usually avoids giving major defensive assignments to Summers. But Summers is the only guy on the roster with the athleticism and length to hang defensively with a guy like Moore. Summers has been foggy and lethargic on defense throughout his career. But not in the second half at Purdue. Izzo said it was Summers' best defensive half of his career. Izzo calmly, respectfully told Summers this, while on the sideline, as the last :30 seconds ticked off the clock at West Lafayette. These were also the next :30 seconds of the rest of the season.

Had MSU hatched a new hope as a wing defender, to go along with the pleasant defensive surprises of Roe and Appling? I am eager to find out. I truly believed that Michigan State was fixing its variable issues, one by one, in traditional Izzo fashion, within the depths of a losing skid, while fans and media evacuated the bandwagon.

Last year, Izzo benched Summers at the end of the Spartans' loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. Izzo wasn't sure there was a place in the program for Summers, and told him as such.

And then Summers went on one of the greatest streaks in MSU basketball history, carrying the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament, becoming Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional.

Not surprisingly, after Izzo insulted Summers at halftime of the Purdue game, Summers responded with terrific defense.

Izzo said on Monday that Summers is a guy whom he needs to stay on, morning, noon and night. If Izzo lets up just a little bit, Summers goes on a skid. Izzo warned fans and media that if they happen to catch the head coach saying a bad word when addressing Summers during a game, well, that's just the way it was going to be.

It was getting to be Izzo season. Things were getting fixed.

The Last Cog

The two remaining major flat tires were Lucas and Lucious. Lucas is close to recovering from last March's injury, and six months of spring/summer rehab. Against Purdue, we saw more blow-by burst out of Lucas than any time since last March. But, as Izzo pointed out, Lucas didn't seem to know what to do with the ball once he went by people, it had been so long. Lucas went 3-of-16 against Purdue. His shooting was horrible. But the silver lining in Lucas's performance was the fact that he was back to creating shots for himself.

If, or when, Lucas dials in the shot making ability that enabled him to become Big Ten MVP as a sophomore two years ago, well, that's when Michigan State can become a Top 10 team again.

Get Lucas doing that. Get Summers squared away. Keep Draymond Green playing like he's been playing for the last three games. Do those things, and keep Roe perking as a defender, and Appling too, and Summers too. Maintain those things, with good players doing things you know they are capable of doing on offense, and then this last little cog was to get Korie Lucious shooting well again.

You didn't need Lucious to blister the nets like he did at Duke, or like he did as a freshman in the Final Four against UConn. But it sure was nice knowing that those explosions were possible, in any given game.

In order for MSU to turn this season around and become a threat for a third straight Final Four, the Spartans weren't asking Steve Nicodemus to become Steve Nash. They were merely asking Kalin to become Kalin again, and for Korie to become Korie again.

Summers is on his way to becoming Summers again. He has shot better in the last two games (6-of-15 from 3-point range). The light may have gone on for him defensively. Now he needs to rebound better. A great player is in there somewhere. Summers likes Izzo. Summers will allow Izzo to hit his buttons and extract that great player.

It was Lucious. Lucious was, in my opinion, the biggest variable, heading into late January. When Izzo talked about all of these things during his press conference on Monday, it was Lucious's shooting woes that caused Izzo to shrug his shoulders the most. "I know he wants to make those shots," Izzo said. "I know he can make them. Korie has done it before. When is going to start making them? Is he going to come around?"

Then he shrugged his shoulders.

It was a major variable. A Final Four variable.

But now that variable has been erased from the blackboard.

This isn't addition by subtraction. This is the loss of a unique bench-scoring resource.

So Now What?

Now, Appling becomes the back-up point guard. Appling has been starting at the left wing. He has played some back-up point this year, and he has done okay with it. His potential at the position is immense.

I would imagine that Appling will take over back-up point guard duties when Lucas sits. Then when Appling needs to sit, Lucas will come back in and run the point. Izzo had similar rotation with Cleaves and Charlie Bell during the National Championship season of 2000. This type of rotation will limit the minutes Lucas and Appling can spend on the court together. But I expect that they will start and finish games together.

Look for Izzo to try to get one or two minutes of point guard play per half out of 6-foot-4 walk-on Mike Kebler. Kebler was first pressed into duty last year at Penn State as Lucious's replacement during the one-game suspension. And then in the NCAA Tournament, Kebler did a real nice job of pitching short-inning relief on defense in the Sweet 16, and in the Regional Finals against Tennessee. He has gulped and come through, under pressure.

Pitching short relief as a defender is admirable. But it's harder to provide 10, 12, 14 minutes of quality play. Kebler is proven in some regards as a bit player. It remains to be seen whether he can come through if and when the opportunity presents itself to expand his role, now that Lucious is gone.

In losing Lucious, the Spartans lose more than a back-up point guard. He saw half of his minutes as a wing. MSU will need to fill those minutes as well.

Again, Kebler could get some of those minutes, although he is not a threat to shoot, or drive. Junior walk-on Austin Thornton is likely to see his role increase. The 6-foot-5 Thornton has started five games this year and is averaging 11.5 minutes per game and 2.6 points per contest. His playing time has diminished since the outset of the Big Ten season, as Appling's minutes have increased.

Appling emerged as a 30-minute-per-game guy in the last three or four games. His minutes are probably maxed out, considering that Izzo is asking him to give great effort on defense. Izzo might be able to squeeze 32 minutes out of him in some games.

Some of, Lucious's 25 minutes per game may have to be absorbed by Draymond Green moving some of his minutes back to the wing. Green played the three semi-regularly in the first month or two of the season, but Izzo scrapped that idea when the Big Ten season started. Green doesn't get as much out of his face-and-take offensive skills when guarded by a three, as he does when working against a slower-footed four.

Green can nail jumpers, out to 3-point range when guarded by a four. Power forwards don't like to come out that far on Green, lest he drive around them.

Small forwards aren't as concerned about Green's driving skills. They get out on him quicker, and come out farther, more aggressively.

When Green is at the three, he is not as good of an offensive player. But he'll have to play there.

If Green plays a little more at the three, that means some interior players will get a little more time off the bench. That means a little more playing time for Garrick Sherman, Derrick Nix, and/or Adreian Payne.

You wouldn't think that the loss of Lucious could result in more playing time for back-up centers, but it probably will. And all are capable of delivering.

Without Lucious, the Spartans won't have as much instant-offense potential off the bench, and the Spartans won't be as quick. The Spartans also won't be as good of a passing team.

But without Lucious, the Spartans will play bigger lineups. The Spartans will probably go inside more. The Spartans should be able to rebound better.

It's not the combination Izzo was hoping for. And he's probably cursing 2010/2011 as the one of the more aggravating bad-luck seasons has has ever had.

But he got up at about 4:45 a.m., ready to go back to work, ready to carve out some new playing rotations, ready to try to begin figuring out these new formulas and equations.

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