Michigan State players are embracing the pressure that comes with the expectations of a potential NCAA title. Listen to the team speak Oct. 11, 2017 at media day at the Breslin Center.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
EAST LANSING – It was a strange scene in the locker room after Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas.
There were few tears, even though the Spartans’ season came to an end. Players all talked about hope and promise for the following year, even with a major question hanging over them all.
Would Miles Bridges come back?
It would be answered in April, when Bridges took a stage with Tom Izzo in front of MSU’s iconic Spartan statue. A few hundred yards away from old Jenison Field House, he made the declaration to follow the path of Magic Johnson.
Bridges would return for his sophomore season. Just like Magic. The same NCAA trophy Johnson sought almost 40 years earlier became his sole mission.
“I got some unfinished business here,” Bridges said as the crowd of 1,000 erupted into cheers.
“I have personal goals here. I want to win a national championship.”
No one glowed more than Izzo. He knew with a generational talent in Bridges, his best recruiting class ever returning as sophomores and another potential lottery pick on his way, it might be Michigan State’s best chance to win another championship.
“Let’s face it, we’ve got some players — some very good players — but we’ve got some depth,” Izzo said Wednesday at MSU’s media day. “And how we put that together will be very, very important — making sure we have the right lineups in there together, making sure that we have guys that can play together. … But I’m excited to get the opportunity. It’s a privilege.”
The line of the offseason, delivered by third-year captain Tum Tum Nairn, has been that, “We don’t gotta do this, we get to do this.” Players understand there will be pressure, with the Spartans ranked No. 1 in some polls and in the top 5 of almost every preseason preview.
They return Bridges, along with 78 percent of their scoring and 81 percent of their rebounding from an injury-ravaged team that went 20-15, yet still made Izzo’s 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
And this year, MSU has a lot of components needed to chase Izzo’s first title since 2000 and the school’s third all-time.
“A lot of people don’t get an opportunity to play basketball,” Nairn said. “I think if you look at it not that ‘I gotta do it’ but that ‘I get to do it,’ it puts a different perspective on it. You appreciate it more. …
“You get to have the opportunity to be in the conversation for something that’s big and special. It’s not that you gotta do it, you get to be in that conversation. That’s special.”
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It starts with Bridges, the sophomore who Izzo has called a “superstar without an ego.” The 6-foot-7 swingman bypassed the NBA Draft, despite being projected as a potential lottery pick, to try and etch his name in school history along with Johnson and fellow Flint native Mateen Cleaves who have won it all and other MSU greats who have fallen short.
“We don’t pay attention to the hype. And if we do, then we embrace the pressure,” said Bridges, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year who is up for preseason All-America and Player of the Year honors. “That’s basically the advice that Mateen has given us, and we try to use that to the best of our abilities.”
Izzo also welcomes freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., another selfless star in the making. The 6-11 power forward, who can run the court and shoot outside, brings with him an NBA pedigree and has been ranked as a potential top-10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, if he chooses not to follow Bridges’ lead from a year ago.
Height in the paint was a prime problem a year ago for MSU. The Spartans lost 6-9 forwards Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter in the preseason, then limped along with just Bridges and 6-8 classmate Nick Ward as the only players 6-7 or taller. Izzo had to tread gingerly with foul trouble while adeptly moving players around from their natural positions to overcome the lack of size in the paint.
Ward developed into one of the Big Ten’s best big men in the process, with his 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game second to only Bridges (16.9/8.3) in both categories. They became the most productive rookie duo in MSU history last winter, combining for 958 points and 459 rebounds between them. That’s better than Johnson and Jay Vincent’s numbers in 1977-78, a year before they led the Spartans to their first national title.
“We all got confidence in each other,” Ward said, “and I feel like we’re going to meet everyone’s expectations.”
With those two, the arrival of Jackson, along with the returns of both Carter and Schilling and the addition of 6-8 freshman Xavier Tillman, Izzo suddenly has plenty of frontcourt options instead of a Division II-sized roster.
“It’s a way different team than we had last year,” Schilling said. “As far as the bigs, we’re challenging each other and making each other better every day. That’s one thing I look forward to, getting better.”
Nairn is a lightning-quick veteran and one of Izzo’s best leaders all-time. The 5-10 point guard was a key contributor to the Spartans’ last Final Four run in 2014-15 when he was a freshman. He remains the emotional heart-and-soul for this year’s team.
Now a senior, Nairn’s role may be reduced with the development of 6-foot sophomore Cassius Winston, a more dynamic offensive threat who also tied for the conference assists lead and was fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Fellow sophomore Joshua Langford (6-4) and junior Matt McQuaid (6-5) also had to play out of position a year ago, but the duo can now return to their natural shooting guard spot. Both also battled injury problems early in the year, but they are pure deep threats who are pugnacious defenders.
The additional size allows Izzo plenty of options off the bench, with players returning to their regular roles. Kyle Ahrens can provide outside shooting and athletic ability off the bench behind Bridges at small forward. Forward Kenny Goins, who at 6-6 was pressed into duty at center with the lack of height, can be a scrappy rebounder in a reserve role at power forward.
Seniors Schilling and Carter are almost back to full health after their knee injuries, and they will be vying for time in the suddenly loaded frontcourt. Izzo believes Schilling could be one of the nation’s best ball-screen defenders and can play either power forward or center, and UNLV grad transfer Carter has pick-and-pop ability that MSU lacked last year. And Izzo called rookie Tillman “the biggest surprise” of early practices with his size, basketball knowledge and versatility.
“That Michigan State, that Spartans across our chest – you can see all the banners in here. That’s part of the program,” Winston said. “That’s what the fans expect, no matter who you are. This year, we got a good team, there’s no way around it. We got a really good team. The sky’s the limit for us. The biggest thing is we have to hold those expectations on ourselves.”
Izzo’s task early will be to assemble those pieces and find a rotation, all while playing a difficult schedule that features Duke in the Champions Classic, the Phil Knight Invitational Tournament and Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge before getting into conference play.
That’s fine with Izzo. He has never shied away from a tough opponent. Nor has he run from lofty expectations.
“The advantage of either being old or experienced, whatever you want to call me, is I have a lot of experience at different things,” he said. “The one thing I told them is through all those things I’ve talked about to my guys, I said, I’ve been unranked and looked like nobody cared, and we’ve been ranked No. 1 in the country and had pressure on us. I much more like the pressure because that’s better for the program, it’s better for the players.
“It means that we’re legitimate contenders for something.”
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!