Published January 08, 2015
Nearly two minutes to play. Michigan State down three. Crisler Arena howling. Michigan students swaying. Winning time looming. Break for media timeout.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo entered his team's huddle Tuesday night and blinked at the most astounding sight:
Kalin Lucas, the team's sometimes silent point guard, barking instructions to teammates. Telling them they'd better not surrender an inch on defense. Telling them every rebound better be a Green rebound. Telling them Michigan was not winning this game.
For a second, Izzo simply enjoyed the view. Then he spoke. "Is it all right if I talk, Kalin?" Izzo asked.
Player and coach exchanged a nod. Next thing you knew Crisler Arena was as quiet as an art exhibit, and Michigan State (18-3) was looking like a team you'd better return to the list of contenders completely capable of finishing the season at Lucas Oil Stadium in early April.
A basket by Raymar Morgan. Then a game-wining jumper by Lucas with 3.5 seconds to play. Michigan State 57, Michigan 56. The Wolverines tasted that same splash of heartburn that Minnesota tasted last weekend when Lucas hit a game-winner to beat the Gophers, too.
Suddenly the Spartans are 8-0 in the Big Ten, at least two games ahead of everybody in the loss column. Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves delivered national titles to East Lansing, but they didn't start 8-0 in the league. It's a first for the Spartans as they await a Saturday visit by Northwestern and then trips to Wisconsin and Illinois next week.
Izzo delivered hugs in the locker room. One of the first went to Lucas.
"Maybe now you understand why I was on you the way I was, because I know what you're capable of doing," Izzo said.
Maybe now everybody understands -- without hyperventilating. It was Dec. 29 when Izzo told Lucas he didn't want him at practice that day. You would have thought the coach had announced that Magic Johnson's jersey was being pulled down at the Breslin Center. The news led one segment on the Big Ten Network and dominated the crawl on another network. The message boards warped into meltdown mode.
Izzo has directed five of the last 11 Michigan State teams to the Final Four. He understands the rhythms of how habits formed in December shape what happens in March. A player as gifted and as gritty as Kalin Lucas needed to lead more forcefully than Lucas was leading. MSU had lost three of its first dozen games. This was no freshman. Lucas is a junior who had directed the Spartans into Detroit, his hometown, for the 2009 national championship game.
"We need Kalin to score, pass, defend, rebound, lead, sell popcorn and coach the team," Izzo said. "He understood some of that, but I don't think he understood all of it. I wasn't looking for him to lead in a rah-rah style. I was looking for him to embrace his teammates more."
In Lucas, Morgan, Draymond Green, Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Delvon Roe, Michigan State has a formidable core. But the Spartans aren't blessed with as many potential high NBA draft picks as Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse or Texas. The Spartans don't have a DeMarcus Cousins, Damion James, Cole Aldrich or Wesley Johnson glaring from the post. They need a collective buzz - stirred by Kalin Lucas.
It wasn't just that Michigan State had been beaten by Florida, North Carolina and Texas. It was that State averaged more than 18 turnovers in those defeats - and Izzo could not tolerate that.
Here's another set of numbers you don't associate with a Tom Izzo team: The Spartans had been outscored by a combined 11 points in the final two minutes or so of those losses.
Izzo wanted more. He had to have more if the Spartans intended to survive against Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State and the others itching to displace MSU atop the Big Ten.
"I told him not to come to practice," Izzo said. "I told him he could go in the other gym and shoot, or he could watch extra video or he could go sit in my office and think about what he was ready to do to make us a better team."
Did it work? Roll video from the final two minutes of the Minnesota and Michigan wins, when State outscored those teams by five points. Are the Spartans better? They have not lost another game. Feel free to connect the dots.
"I don't know exactly where we are," Izzo said. "Our schedule has been bizarre. It's about to get a lot tougher. But we're going in the right direction."
Following the lead of Kalin Lucas.
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