Michigan State Hopes to Capitalize on its Speed

Kalin Lucas, right, and Tom Izzo are all smiles now that Michgan State is running on offense.
Kalin Lucas, right, and Tom Izzo are all smiles now that Michgan State is running on offense. (By Al Goldis -- Associated Press)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The very reason Kalin Lucas provided as to why the Michigan State men's basketball team did not live up its monstrous expectations last season is the same reason the Spartans have remained in or near the upper echelon of the sport's hierarchy for more than a decade.

Lucas, Michigan State's newest torch-bearer, sat on the empty stands of the Breslin Center following a team workout one late October afternoon and revealed why the makeup -- and thus, the fate -- of this year's squad will be different.

"I think it kind of hurt us last year when we didn't run," said Lucas, the Spartans' lightning-quick point guard. "There were times we slowed it up and teams played us better, so our main thing this year is if we got a break and we can run, that's what we will do."

On Thursday night in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, No. 5 Michigan State (2-0) will take on a Maryland squad (3-0) comparable in intent, yet divergent in execution. Since winning a national title in 2002, Maryland has returned to the NCAA tournament three times, advancing as far as the round of 16. Michigan State has not missed an NCAA tournament since 1997. The Spartans won a national championship in 2000 and have appeared in a pair of Final Fours since, most recently in 2005.

As he lounged in a red leather chair inside his office earlier on that October afternoon, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said the two facets of his program of which he is most proud are the high level at which it consistently has competed during his 13 years at the helm and its ability to do so while playing what Izzo considered some of the toughest nonconference slates in the country.

Still, Izzo said, he can relate to coaches such as Maryland's Gary Williams. He understands the bewildering sensation of having portions of a fan base become spoiled by the success that revitalized a program and its national renown. He knows all too well the plight of having to defend recent "failures" because his teams did not live up to the standards of past triumphs.

The first question Izzo faced at the Spartans' media day this fall was from a reporter who wanted to know how the coach planned to make up for last season's disappointment.

"I'm in trouble," Izzo responded, drawing a chorus of puzzled looks. "Twenty-seven wins is the fifth-most in the history of the school. Sweet 16 appearance. Got beat by arguably the best team in [the NCAA tournament] last year."

Indeed, last season Michigan State finished 27-9 after falling to eventual runner-up Memphis in the round of 16. But Spartans fans were left unsatisfied, mainly because their team had developed into slower, more plodding version of what they were used to seeing. Drew Neitzel, for all his sharp-shooting ability, was fairly one dimensional, a player who most likely would hit his shot, but only after a teammate created it for him.

But because he was the team's marquee player, Izzo and the Spartans acquiesced. Izzo said he played two "bigs" all the time ("And when I say bigs, I mean maybe not as athletic," he noted) during the past two seasons, a stark deviation from his ideal style.

"I don't want to have that dip where I miss the playoffs cause I was too stubborn and only gonna run one system no matter what I have or what injuries I get," Izzo said. "I don't want to change my system, but I will tweak and make adjustments to suit, not only the personnel I have, but the situations I have."

For the first time in a few years, Izzo did not have much tweaking to do entering the fall. With Neitzel graduated, Lucas has assumed the reins of a more wide-open offense. Lucas, a 6-foot sophomore, has "speed like nobody I've coached," according to Izzo, which has allowed Michigan State to raise its tempo.

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