- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

DETROIT (AP) - The first time Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens spotted Korie Lucious, the little guard was a grade schooler running around a local gym with a big smile on his face.

Lucious is a college freshman now and on a much bigger stage. That smile, though, is still there.

“My dad and my mom have been telling me all my life, just have fun while I’m playing. If I’m not having fun, then there’s no reason to really play,” Lucious said Sunday. “If I take it too serious or always have a frown on my face, there’s something wrong. I just try to keep myself energized and just have fun while I’m out there playing.”

Oh, he’s having fun all right.

He played just nine minutes Saturday night, but finished with 11 points in Michigan State’s 82-73 upset of Connecticut that put them in the NCAA title game. All but two of those came in a 1 1/2-minute span at the end of the first half, energizing the Final Four-record crowd of 72,456 that was about two-thirds Spartans fans.

Lucious made one 3-pointer, then converted all his free throws when Kemba Walker fouled him on another 3-point attempt. He knocked yet another one down from long range, grinning and screaming “YEAH!” as he backpedaled to get back on defense.

“That’s one thing great about freshmen, especially ones that are a little cocky, they don’t even realize the falderal around them,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I think he’s oblivious, smiling and laughing. A couple times I want to strangle him, ‘Quit smiling, it looked like you were showing off.’ That’s not who he is, he feels good about himself. He’s played up and down (but), he is good enough to play.”

As a kid in Milwaukee, Lucious spent hours playing basketball with his father at the local YMCA. It was there that Stephens, then an assistant at Marquette, spotted him. Stephens was interested in someone else, but something about the eager youngster charmed him and he asked if Lucious wanted to be a ballboy. Soon Lucious was showing up at summer camps.

Though Stephens left Marquette to join Izzo’s staff in 2003, he continued keeping tabs on the player.

“He was always a little better than other kids” at camps, Stephens said. “You could tell he was playing way above his head in terms of his age group. So he’s been a really good player for a long time.”

With Stephens at Michigan State, Lucious started going to camps in East Lansing. Izzo was impressed with the high-energy guard, and the feeling soon became mutual. Lucious committed to the Spartans before his junior year in high school.

“I just loved the campus, I love Izzo and the tradition that’s been built here. It was close to home, and it’s just a great program to be in,” Lucious said. “And they always preach family. I’m not sure all schools preach family, and that’s just something that caught my attention.”

With cat-like quickness, dexterity and a silky-smooth jumper, Lucious has all the makings of the next great Michigan State point guard. But he struggled with some bad decision-making early in the season. In that 98-63 beatdown at the hands of North Carolina in December, Lucious had five turnovers and no assists in 11 minutes. He also was 0-for-3 from 3-point range.

He had three more miscues in Michigan State’s next game, another two in the game after that _ though he did dish out 11 assists, too.

A run like that would send most freshmen into a mental meltdown. Not Lucious.

“When you’re a freshman or when you’re a good player, the main thing you’ve got to keep in yourself is confidence, no matter what’s going on,” said Travis Walton, a senior who is the Spartans’ undisputed leader. “Korie has kept confidence on himself. Even early on when he wasn’t making good decisions with bad passes, he’d come back the next game or the next day in practice and make that same type of pass. That just shows he’s got confidence in what he’s trying to do and what he believes he can do.”

Don’t think Izzo didn’t get on him, though.

The only thing that irks Izzo more than sloppiness is poor defense, and he rode Lucious hard early in the season. Lucious’ role is going to get a lot bigger next year with Walton graduating, and Izzo wanted to make sure he was ready.

Although Lucious might look as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, he’s as hard a worker as they come. He’s had only two games with more than two turnovers since the Big Ten season began, and 11 in which he had none. In a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, Lucious single-handedly tried to get the Spartans back in the game with a 10-point scoring spurt. He finished with 16 points, two steals, an assist and just one turnover in 18 minutes.

“If you were at our practices and saw how coach and the other assistants got on him for his turnovers, you’d probably get better, too,” Stephens said, laughing. “But he really has grown. He’s taking better care of the ball, and he’s going to be a great player for us.”

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