INDIANAPOLIS - No team in NCAA history made it to the Final Four with a slimmer winning margin than Michigan State's 13-point advantage over four games. But then, how many teams would have had a Korie Lucious available in reserve when a star like Kalin Lucas went down with a torn Achilles tendon in the second round against Maryland?
Lucious came off the bench in that game to score 13 points and hit the winning three-pointer in an 85-83 victory over the Terrapins, and the sophomore has handled Lucas' point-guard duties admirably. How Lucious performs in a national semifinal against Butler (32-4) on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in a battle of fifth seeds likely will determine whether the Spartans (28-8) can maintain their narrow winning margin.
"Korie has been in big arenas and made big shots," coach Tom Izzo said Friday. Recalling last year's NCAA runner-up finish, Izzo added: "He made big shots against Louisville; he made big, big shots against UConn. Like Kalin, he's got toughness and he's got a little cockiness. So he's not going to be intimidated."
Against Northern Iowa in the Midwest Regional, Lucious made a critical basket near the end with a spin move into the key and a jump shot he made drifting to his left. It was replayed again and again on "SportsCenter."
"I've been working on those type of moves all my life," Lucious said Friday. "I feel real comfortable doing it, and it was the right time."
Now that he's playing 35 or more minutes per game, Lucious said he has to grow into the floor general role Lucas played. Where he was the off guard in the past, now he must take charge, call plays and talk a lot more to his teammates. He showed some of the stress in the 70-69 win over Tennessee in the Midwest final, shooting only 1-for-7 from three-point range and scoring only eight points.
Durrell Summers has stepped up his scoring in the absence of Lucas, as did Draymon Green in the Tennessee game. But they expressed confidence in Lucious to play big.
"We already knew what Korie could do by seeing him in practice every day," Green said. "The world didn't know what he could do. When you take on a role like that, you're going to need a little help, but he hasn't needed a lot of help."
Butler has held all four of its tournament opponents to 59 or fewer points and will have an enormous home-crowd advantage in Indianapolis. Still, the Bulldogs are a mid-major school, and Michigan State is making its sixth Final Four appearance in 12 seasons. The Spartans might have to fight the tendency to be overconfident.
"We all know Butler is a great team," Lucious said. "For the past couple years, they've been ranked in the top 10, top 20. We don't look at them as an underdog or a Cinderella team or anything like that. We just look at them as another great team we have to play and make sure we are ready for the game."