ST. LOUIS - Sitting on the bench, a cumbersome, protective boot on his left heel, Kalin Lucas could only watch. So used to carrying his team to victories, the star point guard has been forced to leave Michigan State's fate in someone else's hands.
So far, the Spartans have had a firm grip.
Led by swaggering sophomore Korie Lucious, Michigan State has rallied around its fallen star and advanced to another regional final by getting everyone involved.
Once so reliant on Lucas, the fifth-seeded Spartans have depended on each other since last year's Big Ten player of the year ruptured his Achilles' tendon against Maryland in the NCAA Tournament's second round.
They've been like a tattoo artist covering up unwanted ink: the underlying ugliness is still there, but it's masked by a larger, more elaborate masterpiece. "I think after halftime of the Maryland game, that was a big turnaround for this team," said Lucious, who hit the winning three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Maryland. "We all made a commitment to rally around each other and play together as a team."
Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams have always been tough-minded. The coach recruits that way, drills the mentality into them with things like his famous tough-guy "War" rebounding drill.
Ranked No. 2 in the preseason, last year's national runner-up endured a dysfunctional season of injuries and conflicts that led to suspensions and benchings.
This is Michigan State's seventh trip to the Elite Eight in the last 12 years. years. All but once, they've moved on to the Final Four. It's an impressive legacy, and one Bruce Pearl and Tennessee would like to emulate. The sixth-seeded Volunteers had never advanced beyond the regional semifinals until Friday night.
Sure, the Spartans played for the national title last year. But Tennessee has shown it can beat the best, knocking off Kansas and Kentucky during the regular season and second-seeded Ohio State Friday night.