Dressed in sweats, his left foot encased in a walking boot, Kalin Lucas sat on the sideline of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis during last spring's Sweet 16, momentarily forgetting the torn Achilles tendon that had abruptly ended his season the weekend before. He watched, mesmerized, as his best friend and Michigan State teammate, Durrell Summers, picked apart Northern Iowa's defense one day and shredded Tennessee's two days later, giving Lucas an "I got this" nod after each score. He is playing the best basketball I've ever seen him play, Lucas thought to himself. Then, the implication of that hit him like an elbow to the jaw: Man—he's gonna leave me.
This is an article from the Nov. 22, 2010 issue
Lucas, a 6'1" point guard, and Summers, a 6'5" shooting guard, had played AAU ball together since eighth grade and had decided to come to East Lansing together, both of them dazzled by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's vision of them playing for the Spartans in the 2009 Final Four in Detroit. Up until now their basketball careers had unfolded as Izzo had predicted they would, and the Spartans, although battered by injuries, were headed to a second straight Final Four. It just wasn't supposed to happen like this.
Back in their apartment in East Lansing just after they returned from the Sweet 16, Summers read Lucas's forlorn face. "K, you have nothing to worry about," he told Lucas. "I'm staying. I don't care if we win the title, I don't care if [NBA scouts say] I'm a top 20 pick, I'm staying. We came in together, we're going to go out together."
"When he said that," Lucas says, "my heart kind of stopped."
Sometimes college basketball is about more than getting to "the next level." In this one-and-done era, when many of the sport's brightest stars shoot over the landscape like so many meteors, it's easy to forget that there are still top players who value the college experience (and the degree that comes at the end of it), who desperately want to win the national title, who prize the friendship of their teammates. This year the Top 25 is peppered with seniors who could have entered the NBA draft but stayed—not just for their own final year but for their best buddy's final year too.
The Spartans, Blue Devils and Boilermakers are all being driven by senior tandems, and those players' bonds and shared desire to achieve something significant—a first national title for the program (Purdue); winning a championship after coming so close in the last two years (Michigan State); or a second set of back-to-back titles for their school (Duke)—are big reasons those teams are in SI's top 20.
But the lure to return is greater than just unfinished business. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, who frolicked in confetti after helping Duke win the national title in Indianapolis last April, decided they wanted to make the whole crazy chase again, as long as they did it together. "We had so much fun winning a championship, we couldn't pass it up," says Smith.
Smith and Singler were simpatico from the time they first met on the Under-18 USA Basketball team in 2006. Smith, the 6' 2" son of former Louisville star and NBA veteran Derek Smith, who died in 1996, grew up outside the Washington, D.C., beltway with a Magic Johnson poster on his bedroom wall. The 6' 8" Singler grew up a continent away in Medford, Ore., another fine athlete in a family full of them: His mom and dad and four of his uncles all played sports at the D-I level, as does his brother, E.J., a 6'6" sophomore forward at Oregon. The hero on Singler's wall? Larry Bird.
Smith and Singler roomed together their first two years in Durham, rarely disagreeing about anything. Singler loved Smith's magnetic personality and megawatt smile. Smith admired Singler's fearlessness, the way he attacked every play as if he were rushing into a burning building to save a loved one. "He's probably had 200 stitches since he's been here," says Smith. Watching Singler helped Smith learn "how hard to play."
Playing hard wasn't always enough at Duke, though. After coming off the bench as a freshman and averaging 5.9 points in 14.7 minutes, Smith considered transferring. But last year he found his groove as a shooting guard, and he, Singler and the now-graduated Jon Scheyer became the highest-scoring trio (52.4 points a game) in the country. Although Smith's pro prospects were uncertain, he pinned his decision on Singler's plans. When his pal decided to return even though he was considered a first-round lock, Smith was back in too.
"If Kyle had left me, I probably would have tried to go with him," he says. "It's the brotherhood we've had since Day One. We came in together, we might as well leave together."
This year's Duke team will be faster and younger than last year's group, with the action being directed by highly touted freshman point guard Kyrie Irving (page 70). Coach Mike Krzyzewski expects the two seniors to set the tone for effort and desire. "They need to be big brothers," he says. That shouldn't be much of a stretch; they already have the brother part down.
Another top returning tandem was supposed to be a trio. But on the first day of practice, in October, Purdue senior Robbie Hummel reinjured the ACL in his right knee—the same one he had just spent seven months rehabbing. As he sits out his senior year, his best friends, fellow seniors E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, will try to shore up Purdue's now wobbly Final Four aspirations (page 90). Johnson, a 6'10", mobile center with close to three-point range, and Moore, a 6'4" combo guard who led the team with 16.4 points a game last year, have considerable talents of their own. (Both entered and then withdrew from the draft.) But replacing what coach Matt Painter calls Hummel's "broad scope of intangibles"—as well as his 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a game—won't be easy. Of course, these three, who became close while on the Indiana high school all-star circuit, never expected easy at Purdue. They signed when the Boilermakers were last in the Big Ten and shared a vision of making the program nationally relevant again. They've accomplished that much, but it's not enough. "JaJuan and I are going to have to step our game up even another notch from what we thought we were going to do," says Moore. "A lot of people are counting us out right now. It definitely gives us motivation to go out and win."
Most fans of college hoops know better than to count out Michigan State, a participant in six of the last 12 Final Fours. Doing so this year would be especially foolish. Summers and Lucas coming back "means the world to this team," says Izzo. "They aren't just our two best players; I think they are the two best players in the country at their positions."
The two first met as opponents in seventh grade in Detroit, when Lucas's AAU team, the Shockers, crushed Summers's Roadrunners club "by about 40 points," says Lucas. The next year they both joined The Family AAU program and grew tight as they roomed together at tournaments and camps and discovered acres of common ground, including a tendency toward introversion. That Lucas comes from a two-parent home in the suburbs while Summers was raised in the inner city by a single mom is about the extent of the distinctions between them.
"Honestly, I think we're too much alike now," says Lucas. "We've known each other so long, and we've been roommates since freshman year. We do pretty much everything the same. We like the same food, clothes, shoes." (For separate interviews with SI, each player arrived wearing pristine Detroit Tigers caps—red for Lucas, black for Summers.) They have the same major, sociology, and usually sport the same haircut, often as a result of a goofy competition Summers has dreamed up. Freshman year it was, Who could grow out his hair the fastest? For four months neither saw the barber. "Then we cut our hair and tried to see who could get the most wave," says Lucas. "I'd see Durrell brushing his hair all the time, so I had to make sure I was brushing my hair, to get more waves than him."
On the court their competition is just as fierce. In more than one game of one-on-one they've ended up throwing punches. "We're like brothers," says Summers. "We get into it, but when we get back to the crib, we're cool."
Izzo recognizes the hallmarks of an intense, unshakable bond. "They remind me of Mariucci and Izzo," he says, referring to his lifelong friendship with Iron Mountain high and Northern Michigan classmate Steve Mariucci, the former Detroit Lions coach. "They are in-sep-a-ra-ble."
Lucas's mom, Tina, who calls Summers "our other child," says the two players are sometimes "in their own world." That's been a problem for Izzo, who has harped on the need for both to be more vocal and communicative and to bring along other players when they go to the gym. "I use the term be a better teammate," says Izzo. "It wasn't that they were bad teammates, they just didn't share anything with anyone else. Yes, they need each other. But they also need the rest of the team to accomplish the great things they want to accomplish."
Last season Izzo dismissed Lucas from a practice because he wasn't doing things like congratulating another player for a good shot or play. And he benched Summers for the second halves of what turned out to be two close losses, including a first-round Big Ten tournament game against Minnesota, to make that same point as well as a few others. Summers was a gifted but inconsistent scorer, and his defensive intensity flashed on and off like a faulty street lamp.
"You have to have incredible focus to win as the lights get brighter, from the NCAA's first weekend to the second to the third, and I just felt that Durrell didn't have that focus," says Izzo. "He wants to win a championship, to be a pro, to be a great player, but I don't think he had a clue how to be."
Summers says the benchings were "eye-opening" and gave him new respect for his coach. "He was saying he would rather lose than let me [just go through the motions]," he says. "A lot of fans and media dogged him for sitting me. But it helped me grow."
In the NCAA tournament Summers was a different player, especially after Lucas was injured just before halftime of the Spartans' second-round game against Maryland. At the half Summers ran into the locker room to find his buddy in tears, his season and his immediate future in tatters. Summers looked him in the eyes and said, "K, I'm going to step my game up, I'm going to kill this whole tournament just for you," recalls Lucas. "That's exactly what he did. He had a whole different focus."
The Spartans fell short of the title game, losing to Butler 52--50 in the national semifinals. Summers averaged 18.8 points in five NCAA games, up from his season average of 11.3. No player in the tournament was hotter. Yet when Izzo asked him if he wanted to explore his NBA prospects, Summers declined. "I felt like I had some stuff still to do," Summers says. "I wanted to win a national championship, and I felt there were parts of my game I hadn't really shown yet." If Lucas hadn't been injured and had leaned toward leaving, he adds, "it would have changed my thoughts a little bit, especially because I think we would have been able to win a national title if he hadn't been hurt."
Most days during the off-season Lucas and Summers left their apartment together, Lucas peeling off to the training room for one of his twice-daily rehab sessions, Summers continuing to the gym to work out. Summers was an exemplary teammate, calling Korie Lucious, Draymond Green, Austin Thornton, Garrick Sherman, Derrick Nix and Keith Appling at various times to join him. In pickup games his ferocious defense earned him the nickname Hack.
"Since Jason Richardson, I've never seen a guy work harder than Durrell has on his body and in the gym," says Izzo of the former Spartans star and member of the 2000 national-title team. "It's what you hope seniors do. His attention to detail, from scouting reports to everything else, I'd grade him very high."
He also gives high marks to Lucas, who attacked his rehab "religiously and relentlessly." Lucas, the fastest player Izzo says he has ever coached, may be a different player postsurgery. "He spent time learning the game because he couldn't play," says Izzo. "He still has speed, but it's not his Number 1 asset. If all that speed comes back, he's going to be a better player even though he missed six months."
Izzo makes this analysis over the phone in early November as he is driving back to East Lansing from a speaking engagement in Detroit. His voice is raw but enthusiastic. One of the biggest sports stories of last June was Izzo's flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who offered him a reported five-year, $30 million deal to jump to the NBA. After a two-week courtship Izzo decided to stay put, declaring himself a Spartan "for life." An ecstatic Summers sent him a text saying, in effect, that it took a lot of guts to turn down that kind of money. In fact, Summers and Lucas were on Izzo's mind a lot as he pondered a move to the NBA. "I don't know where they would have gone in the draft, but I knew they had a chance to come out," he says. "I did feel like, they stayed for me; I owe them."
Now Summers and Lucas have one last chance to join Michigan State's legendary tandems of Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser and Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson in bringing home an NCAA championship trophy. "We've said [that] before we leave here, we want to win the championship and, maybe someday, have our jerseys hanging up in the Breslin Center," says Summers. "If you have all that, your legacy will live on forever. That's our plan."
It's a plan that's no less difficult to execute—but far more fun to strive for—when you have your best friend at your side.