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February 20, 2011

DotComp: Spartans showing heart of a defending champion

EAST LANSING - Michigan State was running close to empty on offensive options. The Spartans, as a team, were down to their last mulligan in an uphill, unlikely climb toward what they hope will be their 14th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

In order to win on Saturday against Illinois, and get back to 7-7 in the Big Ten and 15-11 overall, and maintain postseason hope, the Spartans needed Kalin Lucas to take freaking over.

And they needed Delvon Roe to ignore the worst pain of his athletic life.

And they needed Draymond Green to give what he could, without throwing up.

They needed Durrell Summers to hustle, keep a clear head, and at least play defense, rebound and hit some free throws, after experiencing emotional rock bottom just three days earlier.

Summers came through. He was solid. Not a hero. But he was solid.

Green did what he could, having battled stomach flu for the past couple of days, and suffering a severe relapse about an hour before game time. "It looked like he was really in trouble when I got to the arena today," said Tom Izzo.

Izzo had to change his starting lineup, and initial game plan, several times in the hours leading up to tip-off.

Green shot a season-low three field goal attempts, making one, in 27 minutes. He had six rebounds.

"That's why I didn't want to try to do too much offensively," Green said of the flu. "I made a few mistakes, trying to do what I normally could do."

But with the game tied at 51-51 with 2:31 left, he faced up on the left wing, lowered his shoulder, drew contact and a foul, went to the line, paused to make sure his stomach wouldn't go in reverse, made two free throws, and put MSU up for good at 53-51.

Roe played eight minutes against Ohio State four days ago. The plan was for him to maybe contribute 15 minutes in this game, as he continued to recover from his latest knee injury.

"Uh, change of plans, Delvon," Izzo told Roe shortly before the game. "You're going to play a little more than we thought. You're starting."

Roe hasn't practiced since suffering a severe knee bruise in the final seconds of the Penn State game 10 days ago. Repeat. Has not practiced.

"Delvon has only been able to just walk-through," Izzo said. "DayDay hasn't practiced since Ohio State. He didn't even touch the floor yesterday (Friday). So we are just kind of surviving. For instance, we normally switch the four and five (on defense). They went small. We couldn't get totally ready for some of the switching and exchanges that we do. That's how they got a couple of those backdoor things open."

This is the time of year when Izzo tightens the screws, makes subtle improvements on the details, and turns average teams into good ones, and good teams into great ones. But Izzo's handy work has been interrupted by these Roe and Green ailments. And in walked an Illinois team that was almost as desperate as the Spartans, and probably more talented.

"It was an old-fashioned Keady-Heathcote game," Izzo said. "I thought both teams palyed as hard as two teams could play."

At least for a second, before or during the game, Izzo had to wonder, and keep to himself, if this is how this crazy season was going to finally die, and how the streak would finally end. After the off-season dismissal of Chris Allen, the brutal travel schedule of the non-conference season, the unexpected one-game NCAA suspension, the losses, the never-ending shortage of practice time, Lucas's slow, 10-month recovery from last year's injury, Roe's failing wheels, Derrick Nix's mid-season separation from the team, the dismissal of Korie Lucious, and then another Roe injury, after all that, of all times to lose Green - the team's front man and emotional pulse - to a stomach flu, why now? In the first actual must-win situation of the year? Why now?

Izzo had to put that anxiety aside and let the team know that he still believed in them.

'I'm Agreeing'

Roe's knee was okay for most of the first half.

"Then after running on it a little bit, the pain came," Roe said. "I didn't know how it would be because, basically, I haven't ran on it for any length of time for more than a week."

Izzo asked Roe how he was doing at halftime.

"Delvon just said to me, 'I'm playing.'

"I said, 'I'm agreeing.'"

With MSU up 53-51, and the season just one or two more mistakes away from being dismissed as a colossal failure, dozens of former Spartan players watched, all around the world, fearing that this team, the 2011 team, would be the one that would break the streak. Roe, with a heart as big as Beaumont Tower, delivered three critical plays for the Spartans in a matter of :45 seconds.

With 1:55 left, Roe sagged perfectly off of the man he was guarding, flashed as a help defender on a driving Brandon Paul, and blocked his shot, sending a loose ball toward the sideline.

Summers was the first to react to the loose ball, by an instant. And the first to get to it, by an inch. He chased after it harder than anyone. He tipped it over the halfcourt line, where an Illinois player retrieved it and heaved a 70-footer toward the rim, missing everything, resulting in a shot clock violation.

Summers looked to the bench. Izzo raised a pleased fist. They exchanged five.

That might seem like no big deal if you didn't know this team, hadn't followed their plight, hadn't shared in their anguish. But here was Summers, a demoted senior, still trying to gain the approval of his coach. Here was Izzo, still trying to get Summers to focus on every little detail. Still believing in him. And having no choice but to trust that he wouldn't mess up, again.

Four days earlier, Summers failed to hustle after a loose ball that had been flung across the halfcourt line at Ohio State. He barely moved, figuring it was pointless to go and grab it and get whistled for an over-and-back violation. But he forgot that Ohio State could chase it down and score, which they did, plus one with a foul by teammate Keith Appling. That was with MSU down 5 with five minutes to play at No. 2 Ohio State. Izzo yanked Summers out of the game. He never went back in. And MSU didn't seriously challenge the rest of the night.

"That play embarrassed us," Izzo said a couple of days later.

But no one was hurt by it more than Summers. He teared up when addressing his teammates prior to practice on Thursday. He is not a perfect player. Not even close. But he wanted them to know that he cared, and that he was not going to stop trying.

Against Illinois, he tried. They all did. And that's why they are still alive.

"I thought Durrell handled everything well," Izzo said of Summers. "One or two times I thought he relaxed (on defense), but I think he understands the intensity he has to play with. That one when the shot clock ran out, he did a hell of a job.

"It's a small step but I think it's a step in the right direction. Guys really rallied around him. I thought that was awesome and hopefully will lead to some good things because we are going to need him at Minnesota."

'The Pain Was a 12'

After the shot clock violation, Roe delivered on offense, stepping aggressively to the rim, splitting two defenders for a power lay-up, making it 55-51 with 1:37 to play. It was a high percentage shot made available by a Green face, fake, take and dish, around Paul, who bit on a pump fake. It was Green's only assist of the night, and it was a biggie.

Green was in space against a help defender because Lucas had expertly executed a spin dribble to beat Illinois' ball screen defensive adjustment. An Illinois center went out high to cut off Lucas's preferred route, off the ball screen. So Lucas went the other way, drew a defender and gave it to Green.

It was clutch execution by three big-hearted guys, three battled-tested players - Roe, Green, Lucas. Along with Summers, they have played in 11 NCAA Tournament games in the last 23 months, winning nine of them. No one in the country can equal them in that category.

Did NCAA Tournament experience have anything to do with MSU's strong-willed execution at the end of this game against Illinois? Maybe not. But the specter of missing the NCAA Tournament had everything to do with the team biting down collectively unlike at any other time all year.

One gets the idea that they aren't just playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, they are playing for the Michigan State way of life. The way of life around here - in the Breslin locker room, video room, training room, weight room, players lounge and offices - has revolved around the journey to Selection Sunday. It's about learning how high the Spartans are seeded in the NCAA Tournament, who they are playing against, when and where ... and not if.

On this night, against Illinois, the Spartans were fighting to preserve that way of life.

After Roe's lay-up, with MSU up by 4, and 1:10 left, the Spartans clocked in on defense.

Illinois' versatile Jereme Richmond faced Green at the top of the key, one-on-one, by themselves. Green got low in the hungriest defensive stance of his life and powerfully slapped the court with his hands. Richmond passed to a teammate.

McCamey received a side ball screen. Roe switched onto him. That's power forward on point guard. That's advantage offense, even if the power forward has two good legs.

"On a scale of 1 to 10," Roe said after the game, "the pain was a 12."

Illinois' most gifted offensive player probed to the right, crossed over to the left, faked a step-back action, and drove right. Roe stayed with him, mirrored every movement right on time, didn't bite, didn't give up any daylight.

McCamey handed off to a teammate, who missed a 3-pointer. Roe collected the rebound. He passed to Lucas. And then Roe limped upcourt like Willis damn Reed.

Somewhere, Magic nodded. Somewhere, Respert approved, and Mateen smiled. They have limped like that, while wearing green, when there were no other choices.

"I've never been prouder of two guys," Izzo said of Green and Roe.

This coming from a guy who coached Mateen and MoPete, a guy who won a National Championship in 2000, and has taken six teams to the Final Four. He has overseen some legendary moments. But he has never been prouder of anyone than these two, on this night. Others may tie Roe and Green in the area of sacrifice. But no one exceeds them, not in Izzo's book. Not on this night.

"It was two teams playing for their lives a little bit," Izzo said. "I got a text from Morris Peterson before the game saying, 'Coach, tell them to play with the pride of a Spartan.' If Delvon Roe doesn't embody that, nobody does."

All of these battered, beleaguered heroes - Roe, Green, Summers, even Mike Kebler - all of them were little staples, little soldiers in this particular battle. They did the little things so that Lucas's big things wouldn't be in vain.

"I told Kalin he's got to be an iron man," Izzo said. "We can't take him out."

'I've Never Seen Kalin That Tired'

Lucas had a game-high 25 points. No other Spartan scored more than 9. Lucas missed more shots than he made, shooting 9-of-19, but that's going to be the case when few others on his team were offensively viable. A forced shot attempt by Lucas on this night was better than a open shot by most of his teammates.

Illinois knew it. They set out to stop Lucas, MSU's only offensive weapon. They denied him in the half-court, pressed him in the full court.

"I've never seen Kalin that tired," Izzo said.

That's what makes his 25 points more impressive.

"One of the things we talked about before was someone had to be special," Weber said. "The sad part was the guy on the court that was special was on the other team. We had stretches of good defense but obviously Lucas was the special one tonight."

Tied at 47-47 with 5:57 to play, Green sat, trying to settle his stomach, and conserve what little energy he had. Lucas was on the floor with Summers to his right and Appling to his left. For the game, Summers and Appling combined to shoot 4-for-16. At crunch time in this game, they could not be trusted as primary scoring options.

Down low, Lucas had Roe, and Garrick Sherman. Roe was gimpy. Sherman was iffy.

On this possession, MSU ran a play or two, some ball screen action. But none of these guys were good choices with the ball. Summers had a brief opening to possibly force a 20-footer on a catch-and-shoot off a downscreen. He wisely decided against it. He flipped it back to Lucas.

Izzo called for a clear out. Lucas vs. the world.

Lucas faced up against Illinois stopper D.J. Richardson. Richardson had a help defender over each shoulder, all staring at Lucas.

Lucas went between the legs left. A fraction of a hesitation. Between the legs back to the right. Then crossover to the left. Another hesitation. Then GO!

That was enough to get a step on Ricahrdson. In came Bill Cole as a help defender. Lucas split them both, hovered into the lane and drained a tear drop from 6 feet to put MSU up 49-47. It was a big, big-time delivery, when MSU had no other offensive options.

"He made some move today and I looked at Nix and said, 'That boy good,'" Green said.

And then Lucas did it again, when it was 49-49. Again, the shot clock was down to about :08 when Lucas received a ball screen from Sherman. Lucas flipped it to Sherman with :05 left on the shot clock. Sherman gave it right back to Lucas.

That's one area where this team has grown. The role players have become smarter. They know that Lucas is the guy who should get touch after touch after touch. It's good for Lucas to know that if he gives it up, he'll get it back. And quickly. The supporting cast is getting a better handle on their roles. Credit Izzo.

After flipping the ball back to Lucas, Sherman stayed out high and offered obstruction as a ball screener. Lucas used that screen, made a tight hairpin turn to the left, quick and sticky off the bounce. He split two defenders and rattled-in another tear drop in the lane, this time over big Mike Davis.

These were excellent offensive plays by Lucas, compounded by the fact that MSU had no one else to go to. It was Kalin or bust.

"I said if Kemba Walker was so great early - and he was, we played against him - but in the last six or seven games, Kalin Lucas has been as good as anybody I've watched on TV," Izzo said. "But it's not just his scoring, he is rebounding better, he is guarding better. We blew a couple of chances for him to get a couple more assists, but he only had one turnover in 39 minutes, dogged like he was. Illinois defended him very well. They dogged him, dogged him, dogged him. I have really respected the way he has adjusted and I think he is improving his game because he is really trying to listen, with his pull-ups, and really taking care of the ball.

"What a time for him to get his swagger back. It's good to see the swagger back and it's good to see the speed back."

Some will say that this was just a 4-point victory by a .500 team over another .500 team. On paper, they are right. But if you know Michigan State, this coach, these players, this program, this win could grow to be so much more. If you know this program, you know that while they still could get knocked off the NCAA Tournament fence at any instant, you also know that they are capable of doing damage if they are invited. It's possible that the 13-year run will end this year, or even this coming week. It's just as possible that this team could get into the Tournament and do something crazy, like make the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in 14 years.

This particular MSU team that played against Illinois is not real good. The Spartans won on will and guts, and a responsibility to the past. They won in order to protect the possibility that next week's Spartans will continue to grow.

They managed to make it across this rickety board on the bridge to March. If the sun also rises and continues to shine into the windows of the Breslin Center and onto the court for practices in mid-March and beyond - Izzo's favorite aspect of spring bloom - then remember this night, and the storm that the hobbled, flu-bitten Spartans weathered on Feb. 19.

"I thought it was a total team grit win," Izzo said, "Our team defense is getting to be better, our bigs have helped some, our guards are doing a better job. If we can get Durrell playing consistently that way, now we can take some steps because we have a point guard playing as good as anybody in the country right now.

"To out-rebound that team by eight, get our turnovers down to 11 and shoot 54 percent in the second half, those were some pretty good things. We are doing some things you have to do to be a good basketball team. When you can play that good of D with the two bodies (Roe and Green) we had in there that were not good, I think that speaks volumes for the character. I think we are starting to get some grit and character. A little late, but better late than never."

Next, Michigan State will play at Minnesota on Tuesday. Can Roe's knee possibly be any better, just 72 hours after this one?

"Delvon's knee was pretty good coming in," Izzo said. "Going out is another story, after this."

Green should be past the flu. But will others catch it?

Izzo replaced Summers in the starting lineup with Kebler. Kebler delivered 21 functional minutes. MSU was up 6-3 when Summers, Green and Adreian Payne checked in.

Summers logged 24 minutes, and played acceptable defense most of the time, and good defense on a handful of occasions.

Kebler had zero turnovers on the night, although on ball reversal was tipped into the backcourt late in the game and nearly take back for a costly touchdown. He made a baseline jumper to put MSU up 31-30 early in the second half. Kebler played good defense on Richmond, and at times on McCamey.

Kebler isn't much of an offensive threat, but he is becoming a workable sidekick for Lucas. Unless a specific set play is under way, Kebler knows that if he gets the ball 20 feet from the basket he is supposed to give it right back to Lucas as soon as possible. Over the course of a game, this results in Lucas getting a handful more opportunities to probe the defense.

With Lucious gone and Summers' minutes on the decline, Lucas doesn't have as much offensive talent around him. More offensive responsibility is being placed on Lucas. But with it, Lucas is also getting more time with the ball, more chances to attack and probe, more shots as a catch-and-shoot two guard, and more opportunities to create shots for interior players such as Green and Roe, as well as Sherman and Adreian Payne.

Lucas is free to play with more urgency and creativity, without having to worry about setting up wing forwards for their recommended daily allowance of shot opportunities. Now, more shots and play-making responsibility are being funneled through Lucas. He can play with less of a conscience. That's a good thing, as this team continues to morph toward something that could give Izzo an interesting outfit in the coming weeks.

Jim Comparoni is Publisher of SpartanMag.com and SPARTAN Magazine.

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