TAMPA – Michigan State could cite plenty of reasons for its disappointing regular-season performance.
The Spartans could refer to the off-court drama that included the dismissal of Chris Allen and the suspension of Korie Lucious, who both transferred to Iowa State. Or the struggles of senior guard Durrell Summers, who hasn't built on the momentum of his exceptional 2010 NCAA tournament performance Or even the complacency that inevitably can infect a program that has made back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Senior guard Kalin Lucas instead points the finger at himself. Or, more specifically, at the left Achilles tendon that knocked him out of last season's NCAA tournament and limited his effectiveness for the first part of the season.
"Our season has been shaky, but I think the reason why our season has been shaky is just because the head quarterback – which was me – I wasn't healthy," Lucas said. "Since I wasn't healthy, there were times I probably could have thrown a lob to 'Rel [Summers] to get 'Rel going. Or I could be coming off a ball screen and see Day-Day [junior forward Draymond Green] open, and I just couldn't get around that screen to give it to him at first. Stuff like that hurt us at first."
Lucas finally is feeling better just as the Spartans begin their favorite time of the year. No. 10 seed Michigan State (19-14) starts its quest for a third consecutive Final Four berth Thursday in an NCAA Southeast Regional game against No. 7 seed UCLA (22-10), which made three consecutive Final Four appearances of its own from 2006-08.
Ranked second in the nation in each of the major preseason polls, Michigan State struggled through a so-so regular season and didn't lock up its 14th consecutive NCAA bid until Lucas scored 30 points last Friday in a 61-48 Big Ten quarterfinal upset of Purdue.
It wasn't supposed to be that difficult.
Michigan State returned four starters from last season, and Green said before the season that anything less than a national championship would be a failure.
Even as a No. 10 seed, those expectations haven't changed.
"We still have one common goal," Lucas said. "Our common goal is to win a national championship."
That goal helped drive Lucas through a painful rehabilitation process that took a toll on him physically and mentally. Michigan State was facing Maryland in the second round of last season's tournament when Lucas landed awkwardly after making a shot and felt a snap as he ran up the floor. An MRI revealed he had a ruptured left Achilles tendon.
"His world was crushed in the NCAA tournament last year," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I mean, when you kind of make a layup, stop, don't step on anybody, don't twist your ankle, don't come down, don't hit a cheerleader – he did nothing wrong.
"He just turned and ran up the court and the Achilles goes."
Lucas healed quickly enough that he didn't miss a game this season, but he wasn't the same player. He didn't perform with the fearlessness you'd expect from a preseason All-America candidate.
"One thing I had to do was trust myself," Lucas said. "There were times I'd get into the paint and I'd still have flashbacks and I'd think about it. I'd be iffy if I wanted to still get into the paint, draw fouls and stuff like that."
Lucas' confidence didn't return until Michigan State's Jan. 27 home game with Michigan. Although the Spartans lost 61-57, Lucas scored 27 points. He would go on to score at least 20 points in three of Michigan State's next four games.
After averaging 14.4 points in the 19 games leading up to that Michigan contest, Lucas has averaged 20.9 since.
"The shots that were getting blocked when he was going to the hole," junior forward Delvon Roe said, "they aren't getting blocked anymore."
Lucas believes the injury has made him a stronger player in the long run. Even though he couldn't play any basketball last summer, he made the most of his time off the court.
"I couldn't play, so one thing I did all summer was just watch a ton of film," Lucas said. "I watched a lot of games, watched games in the NBA, the point guards. … I think I'm just a smarter player."
He's definitely a different kind of player. Instead of being a setup man, he has developed into the Spartans' go-to guy. Lucas has more turnovers (22) than assists (21) over his past eight games, but he has been the Spartans' leading scorer in 13 of their past 14 contests.
The Spartans may have reached the Final Four without Lucas last season, but they realize they won't make it back again unless he is playing at a high level.
"He can do so many things for us," Roe said. "He's our captain. He's our leader. We need him to be at his best for us to win."
Lucas' recovery gives the Spartans hope they can make a long postseason run again. Michigan State has made six Final Four appearances in the past 12 season, including a national championship in 2000. Izzo has proved he doesn't need a No. 1 or No. 2 seed to lead his team deep into the tournament.
When Michigan State last came to Tampa for the NCAA tournament, eight years ago, the Spartans were a preseason top-10 team that had settled for a No. 7 seed after a so-so regular season. That team beat No. 2 seed Florida in the second round and advanced all the way to a regional final before falling to Texas. This season's Spartans likely would face No. 2 seed Florida in the second round.
Lucas would love to lead the Spartans on a similar run this year – only he'd like to take them a few rounds further. That would represent an appropriate finish for someone who has spent the past four seasons exemplifying the toughness that has defined Michigan State basketball.
"I just want to be remembered as a tough, strong player – a warrior that's never going to back down and that's just going to give entertainment to the fans and [is] just going to go out there and have fun and just play hard," Lucas said.
Lucas' team usually has more fun than just about anyone this time of year. His recent play suggests they could have a lot of fun this season.