Time And What Happened: The Trials of KSU and MSUPosted by jstevrtc on February 1st, 2011
Walker Carey is an RTC contributor.
If someone would have told you in November that the preseason second- and third-ranked teams would be unranked on February 1st, you wouldn’t have believed it, right? Well, as we change our calendars to the new month, that’s the position in which we currently find ourselves, as Michigan State and Kansas State have each so far experienced what could be accurately referred to as a lost season — that anomaly of a 1-3 year stretch that befalls even the best and biggest programs, resulting from circumstances almost nobody could have forseen.
Michigan State was a Final Four participant last April and entered this season with almost every publication selecting them to run away with the Big Ten. At the time, it was difficult to come up with reasons why this wouldn’t come to pass. Tom Izzo’s squad included a healthy Kalin Lucas, the versatile Draymond Green, experienced swingman Durrell Summers, formidable big man Delvon Roe, and last year’s NCAA Tournament hero for MSU, Korie Lucious. Shortly after the season began, however, it became clear that this version of the Spartans would be different than the team tabbed as one of the nation’s best.
Early season losses to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse, and Texas exposed the preseason Big Ten favorites as out of their element — a team that could not get it done against some of the nation’s best. When the Big Ten season began, the nightmare continued, as the Spartans quickly accumulated four Big Ten losses. Hoopheads across the nation were surprised with just how fast fate had turned on Tom Izzo and the Spartans. Considering what’s transpired, the Spartans’ struggles should not be that big of a surprise now. Michigan State has had an absolutely brutal schedule, since the four aforementioned non-conference losses came against teams undervalued at the time. Knowing what we now know, it’s unreasonable to believe that any team in college hoops would put together a very strong record with an early season schedule that included Washington, Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Purdue.
MSU’s personnel also hasn’t been as imposing as prior evidence had led us all to believe. Kalin Lucas is not the same player he was before tearing his right Achilles’ tendon last March. He has lacked the explosiveness that he possessed before his Achilles’ rupture, and many of the signature plays in his career were a product of him driving fearlessly into the lane, drawing contact, and finishing tough opportunities. It’s hard for the guy to make these plays as easily as before when he cannot generate much explosion off one leg. Durrell Summers has not provided the Spartans with the contributions that were expected of him. Summers was a star in last season’s NCAA Tournament and hasn’t been able to translate that success into consistent big performances this season. Korie Lucious, expected to be a key factor off the bench, had knee surgery in the off-season to repair a meniscus tear, subsequently struggled in the early going, and was ultimately dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season on January 25th for conduct unbecoming. While Delvon Roe has been a steady performer throughout the season, it’s important to remember that he’s had two significant knee surgeries and, because of this, cannot be relied on to hold this team together.
Kansas State began the season ranked #3 in the preseason poll and was picked by many media outlets to supplant rival Kansas as the best team in the Big 12. Seniors Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly received preseason accolades and sophomore Rodney McGruder was viewed as an emerging star. After the Wildcats raced out to a 9-2 start, things began to fall apart for Frank Martin’s squad. On December 21st, news surfaced that Pullen and Kelly, arguably K-State’s two best players, would be suspended three and six games, respectively, for accepting impermissible benefits. These suspensions served as a harbinger of leadership issues on this team. Last season, when they advanced to the Elite Eight, K-State had a bona fide leader in senior point guard Denis Clemente. Pullen and Kelly were expected to fill the leadership void left by the departed Clemente, but instances such as the suspensions show that they were not adequately prepared to fill that role.
Ever since the suspensions were handed down, Kansas State has gone 5-6. A lack of leadership can only be partly attributed to this underachieving stretch. While Pullen’s scoring has been near where what was expected, he has been nowhere near as effective of a distributor of the ball as Clemente was last season. Kelly has been a major disappointment in both scoring and rebounding. Sophomore forward Wally Judge, a former five-star recruit, always had myriad issues that stifled his progress, was therefore never able to garner major minutes, and permanently left the program yesterday.
While both teams possess the residual firepower to turn their fortunes around in the final full month of the regular season, Michigan State appears to be the more capable of the two. The main reason why the Spartans are the safer play is due to the fact that Tom Izzo is still the head coach, and he’s faced spots in the past where it has looked like everything was stacked against his squad and he still found a way to lead them out of those quagmires. MSU’s remaining schedule is favorable, including two games against Iowa, a home game against Penn State, and a potential revenge game at Michigan (Michigan beat the Spartans in East Lansing on January 27th).
While Kansas State still has the talent on the team capable of turning around their season, there may be too much turmoil that’s taken root in the program for this season to be salvaged. While the Wildcats’ remaining schedule is only somewhat friendly — two games against Iowa State and Nebraska, and one at home with Oklahoma — K-State has given us little reason this year to think they can put it together to win those five games. There are always lessons to be learned by enduring tough times and continuing to play your hardest when things are at their darkest, but, in terms of on-court success, if the Wildcats drop just one of those games, it will be time to designate this season as beyond repair.