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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.
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.