One year after a second-consecutive Final Four appearance, 2010-11 was supposed to be a dream season for the preseason No. 2 MSU men’s basketball team.
The core of a Final Four team was back: Senior guard Kalin Lucas was healthy, and future hall of fame coach Tom Izzo had turned down an offer from the NBA to come back more determined than ever.
Yet somehow Thursday night, that potential dream season, which already had been more rocky than anyone expected, officially became a nightmare.
For the first time since 1997, Michigan (12-9 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) walked out of Breslin Center a winner by defeating No. 25 MSU, 61-57, leaving fans and players wondering if MSU had just hit rock bottom.
There was no doubt this season already was far from ideal for the Spartans, who are sure to drop from the rankings again for the second time this season.
Few expected MSU to lose eight games all year, let alone in the first 20 games. And in almost every nationally televised game, the Spartans came out on the losing end, sometimes failing to show up at all.
Heading into this week, though, it appeared as if things were turning around. The Spartans had lost two in a row, but they lost to very good teams on the road. Players and Izzo all felt good about the way the team was playing despite the losses.
Then this week hit, and the avalanche toward the bottom picked up steam.
First, it was the dismissal of junior guard Korie Lucious for the rest of season Tuesday night. Although struggling recently, Lucious was a player who could play 25-30 minutes per game and was the closest thing MSU had to a true point guard outside of senior Kalin Lucas.
Obviously a big blow to the Spartans, it still was something MSU could work through. Sure, the Spartans’ bench was shallower, and Izzo was short another guard. But, it wasn’t supposed to kill a season — and it didn’t.
The real knockout punch might have come Thursday.
It was the perfect time to show the country that, with or without Lucious, the Spartans were going to turn things around.
There’s nothing like a rivalry game, at home, after two losses to get things going. Junior forward Draymond Green said it himself at practice Monday that, if you couldn’t get “amped up” about playing Michigan at home, you’re playing the wrong sport.
MSU took the floor exactly the way it needed to, amped up and scoring the first six points. But for the next 38 minutes, the Spartans looked like a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team that will be fighting for a berth to the NCAA tournament.
Funny because, that’s exactly what MSU is after its latest disappointing performance.
Before the season, the talk around the program was national championship or bust, but oh, how far things have fallen since then.
After the game, Lucas was asked if MSU hit rock bottom Thursday night.
“A little bit,” Lucas said.
Players don’t often admit something such as that, and although he went on to say the Spartans still can right the ship, Lucas’ comment exemplifies the current state of the program.
A senior point guard who is supposed to be a leader on the floor and in the locker room basically said, “Yes, it doesn’t get much worse.”
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Thursday night had nothing to do with Lucious. Although as a player who had a tendency to show up big in clutch moments, he certainly might have helped.
The Spartans’ issues go beyond one player.
Lucas did his part, scoring 27 points and taking most of the big shots late.
But where was fellow senior guard Durrell Summers when it mattered? Yes, he had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but 10 of those points came in the first half.
After Green’s nine points, no other Spartan had more than five, and only three other players even scored.
Championship teams tend to have more than one player who can step up. They often have senior leadership, chemistry on and off the court and such strong desire to win that you can feel it through your TV.
Looks to me like MSU is 0-for-4 when it comes to that criteria, which is why a championship is all but out of reach.
Winning the Big Ten now is a pipe dream, and any talk of whether the Spartans can make a deep run in March should be trumped by debating whether MSU will be in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
A team that many had penciled in to play Duke in the national championship a few months ago now might not even have a chance to make it there.
Lucas thinks the Spartans have hit rock bottom “a little bit.”
As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any lower from here.
Jeremy Warnemuende is a State News sports reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com
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