If your only source of information on Korie Lucious was the Michigan State guard’s Twitter feed, you’d probably think Lucious had too many breadsticks at dinner.
Late Tuesday night, as Tom Izzo released a statement revealing his season-long dismissal of his starting guard for “conduct detrimental to the program,” Lucious himself reacted to the news on his Twitter account. His tweet — bound to enter Michigan State lore, and already generating some rather hilarious 140-character comedy — was simply this: “Man did I really mess up this time…off 2 the gym I go!”
If that apparently unironic missive seems like the work of someone who maybe just doesn’t quite get it, apparently Izzo and the Spartans agree.
What other explanation is there for Izzo’s sudden, unexpected decision? We don’t know what Lucious did. Like so many collegiate dismissals, the terms of the announcement were left intentionally vague by both coach and player and, per the usual, it will probably take between a day and a week, and maybe longer, for anything more than rumor and innuendo to emerge from the conspicuous silence. Tom Izzo dismissed guard Korie Lucious from the team for “conduct detrimental to the program.”
Thing is, the reason doesn’t really matter. Whatever line Lucious crossed — and the guard was already on thin ice after his suspension related to a charge for driving while intoxicated in the offseason (he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving) — it was enough for Izzo to kick him off the team in the middle of one of the more disappointing seasons in the vaunted coach’s career. The Spartans were already a struggling, underachieving, baffling bunch. It now appears they’re in crisis.
You know the story of MSU’s season by now, but just in case you missed something: Michigan State entered the season ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Spartans returned the core of a team that made its second straight Final Four appearance in April, including star guard Kalin Lucas, who missed the 2010 tournament run thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left heel.
Throw in a celebrated recruiting class and an expected dose of Izzo’s masterful tournament wizardry, and it’s no wonder the Spartans were seen as the one true threat to Duke’s reign in 2010-11, and no wonder Michigan State forward Draymond Green told me he expected to win the national title at Big Ten media day in October. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he?
Those were halcyon days. Since then, the Spartans have been exposed by quality opponents (Duke, Texas, Connecticut, et al) and conference also-rans (Penn State) alike thanks to a turnover-prone and inconsistent offense that can’t seem to get its considerable talent — players like Lucas, Green and Durrell Summers, to name a few — to congeal into anything resembling a competent side. Instead of competing for a Big Ten title, Michigan State has stumbled to a 12-7 record after 19 games, including a 4-3 mark in Big Ten play, and the Spartans have been noticeably reeling all the while.
It hasn’t been much better of the court. After all, the Lucious dismissal isn’t Izzo’s first personnel issue of the season. The coach dismissed guard Chris Allen in August after a prolonged deliberation period during which Allen worked out with the team and told the media he expected to return before his coach eventually sent him packing. Allen’s absence has left a noticeable gap; without him the Spartans lack a consistent long-range threat. It’s one of the main reasons — alongside Michigan State’s ongoing and much-discussed turnover woes — Sparty hasn’t scored at an efficient rate this season.
There have also been issues with the inconsistent Summers, who Izzo benched for a “lack of enthusiasm,” as well as forward Derrick Nix, who nearly left the team in November over concerns about his playing time. In the meantime, Izzo was himself suspended for a silly recruiting violation incurred at MSU’s summer camp.
Here’s the thing: Izzo is occasionally — OK, frequently — treated with deference by the media. It’s no surprise why. For one, he’s very, very good at his job. More than that, though, Izzo is genuine, professional, and considerate in his dealings with the ink-stained, quote-starved wretches in the interview room, most of whom just want coaches to treat them with the same respect those same coaches demand of their players and staff. (Unless of course those media members are trying to figure out whether he plans to leave the Spartans for the Cleveland Cavaliers job. As Izzo himself admitted, that was not his finest hour.)
You attract more flies with honey than vinegar, which is a horrible cliché but also happens to be true, and Izzo has attracted plenty of flies in his tenure at Michigan State. You can question whether that should be true or not — some fans tend to think reporters are whining when they complain about coaches who thrive on psychological press conference power plays, and maybe those fans have a point — but like it or not, it is true.
All of which was a wordy way to preface this: You can probably expect some folks to claim Izzo is being “brave” by dismissing Lucious at this point in the season. Some will argue that he’s “taking a stand” and “setting an example” and “sacrificing wins for the good of his program.” All of which is probably correct. But it’s also correct to say that this Michigan State team — a team with enough talent to make it to the Final Four without its best player eight months ago — has been a disappointing mess from the moment it took the floor in November.
Does anyone think Izzo has had a good season? Are the Spartans improving in any tangible way? Why can’t this team get control of its destructive addiction to turnovers? Why haven’t Summers and Delvon Roe developed into consistent players? Why hasn’t Izzo told Lucas to stop shooting so many inefficient long-range 2s? And — most importantly — why has the past year been a nonstop rush of personnel issues and off-court drama? If I’m a Spartans fan, I may think Izzo is a god, but I’m still asking those questions. Among many others.
Fortunately for those fans, believe it or not, there is some good news here. For one, Michigan State still has the majority of its Big Ten schedule left to play, and if we know anything about Michigan State under Tom Izzo — and in particular this group of players — it’s that it’s never too late to figure things out just in time for a surprising tournament run. First rule of college basketball punditry: Discount the Spartans at your own risk.
The other bit of sunshine is that Lucious, for all his brilliant shot-making ability, was not a particularly effective player this season. His offensive rating to date is 92.9 (which is below average nationally). He shot 28.4 percent from beyond the arc despite having the second-most long-range attempts (81) on his team. He turned the ball over on 24.8 percent of his possessions, and his effective field goal percentage (40.4) was the lowest of any Michigan State player.
Lucious’ suddenly available minutes are likely to go to freshman guard Keith Appling, who hasn’t exactly set the world ablaze himself, but who has been a much more accurate shooter all season long. If the Spartans can get Appling to take care of the ball — something neither he nor Lucious have done well this season — this team might even improve.
Of course, there’s also the chance that Izzo’s decision snaps MSU out of its season-long funk, imbuing this team with a much-needed sense of urgency for a critical February stretch run. You never know.
In reality, though, this dismissal is basically what it looks like: A struggling, disappointing, distraction-riddled team canning one of its starters at just the moment it desperately needs experience, leadership and — most of all — effective guard play. If things were already bad in East Lansing, on Tuesday night they officially got worse.
It’s enough to make a Spartans fan want to blow off some steam. As Lucious himself might suggest: Off to the gym you go?