The bad news: Lucas still isn't walking comfortably on it, which puts him a few miles from practicing. He received treatment today while the Spartans went at it. Izzo did say it's not a high sprain, which would seem to make a rapid recovery more plausible.
The good news for MSU: Tom Izzo said today that Kalin Lucas' sprain is nowhere near as serious as Raymar Morgan's from the fall, and that he still thinks it may be until Saturday afternoon before he knows for sure whether Lucas can play at Illinois that night.
And in Tom Izzo's own words:
“He’s been icing all day,” Izzo said. “He’s a little more swollen today, which was disappointing. But it’s gone down a little bit. What they’re trying to get him to do is in 48 hours — which won’t even be until 10 o’clock tonight — is have him walking on it and hope to get some blood through it.”
. . .
“I’d say (Lucas is) very, very questionable for Saturday,” Izzo said. “Do I know? I don’t know. Would I hide it from Illinois? Not in a million years. … He’s capable of not practicing for two days and still playing. Do I think of him as a key guy for Saturday? Well, that’s already out. Do we play him to win a game and damage it? No. We’ll know more (Friday), but I could see this being a Saturday-afternoon decision.”
Izzo tends to be optimistic in evaluating the odds an injured player will be available for the next game. I think it's very likely MSU has to play Saturday--and maybe next Tuesday--without Kalin Lucas. So how does the team adjust?
Let's start with the math. Here are the current conference-only minutes-played numbers:
32 minutes is a lot of minutes to backfill. Start by bumping Korie Lucious up to 32; that fills 11 minutes. There's not much room to give Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, and Raymar Morgan more minutes at the perimeter spots--maybe 10 minutes maximum. The remaining 11 minutes will fall to Austin Thornton, Derrick Nix, and/or Garrick Sherman--the latter two players getting on the floor in more two-true-big-men lineups with Morgan playing the 3 spot. We'll probably see quite a bit of that Saturday night, since Illinois is one of the few Big Ten teams to start two true post guys (Tisdale/Davis).
(Izzo says that Mike Kebler is an option to play at point guard. Kebler is fairly athletic for a walk-on guard [my statement after the Green-White scrimmage: "Might be more athletic than I had realized and a real option to play a few minutes at PG in a pinch."], but I really have a hard time seeing a guy who's played zero meaningful minutes in his college career suddenly being a major contributor against two upper-level Big Ten opponents.)
Defensively, the impact of Lucas' absence is mostly significant simply from a depth standpoint. Lucas isn't a ball-hawking-type point guard. MSU perimeter defenders rotate frequently on picks and cuts. If Thornton plays double-digit minutes, the defense simply gets slower and bigger. The major concern is that the result of a less fleet-of-foot lineup would be foul trouble, which would throw things further out of whack. Ideally, the MSU players realize they have to buckle down on defense and control the boards even more than they already have to offset the decreased offensive potency without Lucas.
On offense, Korie Lucious will be the primary ball-handler every minute he's on the floor. As much as the offense tends to look somewhat disjointed when Lucious is running the show, we should keep in mind that we're implicitly comparing him to one of the top 3 or 4 point guards in the country. Lucious is a very talented playmaker who's put up serviceable numbers this season: .409/.333/.889 shooting line and a 2.4 assist/turnover ratio. He's going to make mistakes; the trick will be bouncing back from those mistakes and keeping the team on as even a keel as possible.
Without a true third point guard on scholarship, Chris Allen will be the emergency point guard when Lucious needs a rest (the news reports confirm that Allen is practicing at the point). That makes sense for a couple reasons: He's not shooting the ball well right now anyway (0-5 on 3-pointers in the last 3 games) and he's been handling the ball up top with Lucas running off the ball a fair amount of late. Allen's assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play (2.7 to 1.7) actually compares favorably to Lucas' (3.8 to 2.5). The struggle will be if opponents choose to pressure Allen in the back court. In that case, we're likely to see a team approach to bringing the ball up. Durrell Summers is probably Allen's equal in terms of pure dribbling ability.
The biggest problem on offense is going to be what happens when offensive possessions break down and someone needs to create a shot with the shot clock running down. Lucious is just 29-68 on 2-point attempts in 51 career games. Allen and Summers can take the ball to the hoop, but that usually only happens off pump fakes. Asking them do it with an opposing defender squared up with them is a recipe for a charging call.
MSU will need to be more aggressive earlier in the shot clock and, if things do break down, maybe look for jump shots off kick-outs from guards driving toward the lane. The versatile Draymond Green will be called to manufacture some scoring opportunities, as well.
The timing on this situation is less than ideal: You've got a road game in perhaps the most hostile arena in the conference (in terms of crowd noise, at least) followed by a home game against a team whose defensive style drives us nuts even with our all-conference playmaker in the lineup.
A split of the two games would be more than acceptable. Worst case scenario, we find ourselves in a first-place tie a week from now going into two more winnable games (at Penn State, at Indiana) with Lucas on the mend and/or the rest of the team having become more comfortable playing without him. The news that this is not a high-ankle sprain and shouldn't, therefore, linger throughout the remainder of the season is certainly very good news.
P.S. The "at Indiana" game is looking a little tougher after tonight. Of course, we made it look pretty tough last year.
P.P.S. Hopefully, my excessively-in-depth analysis of the Lucasless scenario serves as a reverse jinx and he recovers in time to play at least some meaningful minutes Saturday night.