ST. LOUIS — In the far corner of the Michigan State locker room, one player is taking up two chairs. No one is complaining because the place is nearly deserted. And so Kalin Lucas deposits his rear end in one chair and props his damaged left foot on the other.
He is talking softly, almost in a hush, about the conversations he has had with Korie Lucious, the teammate who is now living Lucas' life. In mid sentence, a pained expression comes across his face.
"Aw, man," Lucas said. "They're showing my injury."
On a television suspended from the ceiling, a highlights show is running footage of Michigan State's game six days earlier against Maryland. On the screen, Lucas is in a heap on the court, not yet aware that a ruptured Achilles' tendon has just ended his season. Seconds later, the highlights show Lucious hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Spartans on to the Sweet 16.
"What were we talking about?" Lucas asks when the highlights end.
Lucious taking your place.
"Oh," Lucas said. "Yeah."
• • •
Down the hallway at the Edward Jones Dome, Korie Lucious has his own interview room with his own name on the curtain and his own NCAA minder sitting nearby. Quite a change for a guy who, a week earlier, seemed like a silent passenger on Michigan State's NCAA Tournament run.
He had started four games in two seasons and had a career scoring average of 4.1 points a game. He was sitting in his usual spot on the bench when Lucas went down against Maryland and, an hour later, it seemed like the entire world was talking about Lucious' dramatic buzzer-beater.
Now, here he is, the starting point guard for a team preparing to play Tennessee this afternoon for a spot in the Final Four.
In his first postseason start on Friday night against Northern Iowa, Lucious played 39 minutes with 10 points, four assists and a career-high six rebounds. He also used a crossover dribble with a spin move to hit a critical jumper in the final minutes.
"I was watching ESPN a lot last week, and I heard a couple comments. 'Michigan State can't win without Kalin Lucas,' and 'Korie Lucious can't get guys involved,' " Lucious said. "So making it to the Final Four would be great for me, especially stepping into the role I had to step in."
Do you blame the critics, Korie?
"Not at all. When Kalin went down earlier in the year and I had to play against Illinois, I had a terrible game. Those comments were probably the right thing to say," Lucious said. "But I plan on going out there and showing that I am capable of leading a team to the Final Four."
• • •
It is an unusual thing to watch a team reinvent itself from one weekend to the next in the middle of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State is still the same team that slaps the floor as a reminder of its devotion on defense, and it is still the same team that attacks the boards as if it were wearing tunics in a Russell Crowe movie. But it is a team with an offense in transition.
Kalin Lucas was the Big Ten player of the year in 2009 and has been a first-team all-conference selection the past two seasons. He does not just direct the Michigan State offense, he dominates it. Lucas has led the team in points, assists and minutes two years in a row.
So it is no wonder the Spartans were nervous about a sophomore stepping into Lucas' shoes in the most important game of the season. Coach Tom Izzo was concerned enough that he drew up a handful of set plays with forward Draymond Green at point guard in case Lucious struggled.
The fear was that Lucious was too undisciplined to play point guard for extended periods against good teams. That he had a little too much playground in his game. His brief time directing the offense in early February when Lucas had an ankle injury did not engender a lot of confidence, considering the Spartans lost three consecutive games.
But something else happened around that time that might, in retrospect, have saved Michigan State's season. Izzo left Lucious behind on a road trip after it was discovered he had skipped classes and appointments with tutors.
"Korie knows accountability is important to me in anything we do," Izzo said. "I've often said when I was 15, 17 years old, if I came home at 10 and I was supposed to be home at 9, and nobody said anything to me, you think I'm coming home at 9 the next night? I'm probably coming home at 11, you know? And that's our job. That is our job."
To Lucious, it was part of a larger lesson. A realization that he had responsibilities and obligations from the classroom to the court.
"It hurt a lot, but at the same time I deserved to be left behind because I made a stupid decision and had to live with the consequences," Lucious said. "It made me a better man, a better basketball player. Coach was holding me accountable for my decisions."
Six weeks later, Izzo left the ball in Lucious' hands with 90 seconds remaining and Michigan State clinging to a 53-51 lead against Northern Iowa.
Lucious let the shot clock run to nearly zero before driving to the hoop and dropping a ballet-like shot.
"Korie has got to play good now. He's got no choice. And he's doing all right," Lucas said. "That little crossover, spin move, fadeaway? That looked a little like me."
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.