HOUSTON (AP)—Everyone knows about the freshman guard who does everything. It’s Derrick Rose of Memphis, and the biggest question about his NBA future isn’t whether he’ll go, but whether he’ll have an NCAA championship in tow when he does.
But there’s another good one in this South Regional. His name is Kalin Lucas, the penetrating point guard for Michigan State, who will be trying to stop Rose—or at least neutralize him—when the fifth-seeded Spartans meet top-seeded Memphis on Friday.
“He was noticeable. He was very noticeable,” Rose said of his memories of Lucas from their meetings over the past few years in AAU games. “He didn’t just pop into the limelight. He’s been there.”
The NCAA tournament ramps things up a bit, however, and when Lucas scored 19 points in Michigan State’s second-round win over Pitt last week, this week’s freshman-on-freshman guard matchup became an obvious story line for this game.
Pretty much everyone knows Rose, who is projected as a No. 1, 2 or 3 pick if he bolts college for the NBA after this season, as expected.
Not as many know Lucas, and those who do don’t seem to appreciate him all that much. He was steady this season, averaged 10 points and four assists, but was left off the Big Ten’s list of all-conference newcomers.
“Miffed would be a wrong word,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the snub. “I was disappointed that he wasn’t, hoping that especially coaches would see what this kid has done for us, instead of maybe just choosing the guys with the highest scoring average or things like that.”
Izzo recognizes, of course, that none of the newcomers named to that team are playing anymore. (OK, Ohio State’s Kosta Koufos is still alive in the NIT.)
But Lucas is. He combined with senior Drew Neitzel last week to score 21 of Michigan State’s final 25 points to help the Spartans pull away from Pitt.
While Neitzel was jacking up 3s, Lucas was taking the ball to the rim, something he did with ease when he was in high school, an all-everything player in Michigan, but that took some refining once he got to the next level.
“Coming from high school, it was more getting into the lane and making a lot of layups and stuff like that,” Lucas said. “In college, you have to adjust to 7-footers and big guys in the lanes.”
The adjustment wasn’t automatic. After starting five games at the beginning of the season, Izzo saw his freshman struggling, saw a lineup that was too young, not able to live up to the high expectations that follow the Spartans around as vividly as memories of Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
The coach urged his freshman to watch more film, analyze the rights and wrongs of his game more. Lucas got the starting job back in February and now has his team in the regional semifinals for the seventh time in Izzo’s 13 years.
There’s a tendency to think that a player this talented, even though he’s freshman, was this good the minute he walked in the door at Memphis seven months ago.
Not so, says coach John Calipari.
Calipari’s good friend, Xavier coach Sean Miller, “looked and he said his initial thought was, `he’ll be like your 12th-best player,”’ Calipari said. “And that was early on. He has gotten so much better and so much more comfortable. The only thing you have to tell Derrick is what you want him to do. When you teach Derrick, whatever you teach him, he owns. It’s no longer yours.”
Other things Rose owns: Conference USA freshman of the year, a spot on the all-conference first team, a strong, all-around floor game (he averages 14 points and 4.5 assists) and even a 68 percent average from the line, which qualifies as above average for the Tigers, who shoot only 59 percent as a team.
Easy to work with, too.
“The way he looks at himself, he’s humble, and he thinks he’s got so much more growth,” Calipari said. “I hope that means one more year at Memphis but I don’t know about that.”
Though Rose demurs when asked about his future, conventional wisdom is he’ll do like so many freshmen have of late—Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Carmelo Anthony to name a few—and bail when this season’s over for the Tigers, regardless of whether that’s here or next week in San Antonio.
Lucas? He’s almost certainly destined to stay.
Izzo calls him the fastest player he’s ever coached. Though there’s a long way to go, the coach’s relationship with Lucas is drawing comparisons to the one Izzo had with Cleaves, who is oft-cited as the favorite player Izzo ever coached.
Problem is, Izzo sees Memphis, with Rose, as a newer version of the Lakers when they had another famous Michigan State alum—Magic Johnson.
“As good as I’ve seen,” Izzo says of Rose. “And he, too, maybe doesn’t get as much credit. He’s not scoring 25 points a game, because he’s playing in a system where his job is to deliver the ball some, score the ball some. He’s got great versatility, and I think that’s what makes him a special player.”