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November 22, 2010
Three teams with national championship hopes—Duke, Michigan State and Purdue—all share a key ingredient: a talented tandem of seniors who are not just NBA-caliber players but also best friends
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November 22, 2010

The Buddy System

Three teams with national championship hopes—Duke, Michigan State and Purdue—all share a key ingredient: a talented tandem of seniors who are not just NBA-caliber players but also best friends

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"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.

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