A year ago, when Michigan State was stunned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a loss to Middle Tennessee State, the locker room was filled with tears.
Red, puffy eyes were plentiful as the Spartans realized their dreams of getting to the Final Four and playing for a national championship were over — a crushing blow for a senior-driven team that believed nothing could keep them from winning a title.
It was a stark contrast to what the scene was like on Sunday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Michigan State got knocked out in the second round by top-seeded Kansas. Instead of feeling defeated, the Spartans had a feeling of anticipation.
Anticipation of what comes next.
Miles Bridges or not, this group of young players believes their up-and-down season that ended after a late flurry from the Jayhawks on Sunday was just the first step.
“I don’t think anybody doubts our upside for next year,” freshman guard Cassius Winston said. “Everybody was focused on this year, how we do this year. But I’m pretty sure nobody doubted we’d come back stronger next year than we are this year. It sucks for this year, but we’ll get in the gym in the summer and it’s gonna be scary next year.”
There’s no doubt the roster should be better by the time Michigan State begins next season, even if Bridges decides to leave for the NBA, a likely outcome as he’s projected to go in the top half of this summer’s draft.
If he does come back?
“Oh, it will be scary,” freshman Nick Ward said smiling.
“We’ll still be good. We’ll have a top team,” Ward said.
Part of the reason that’s a common belief is the fact Ward, Winston and fellow freshman Joshua Langford all showed the promise that helped make them part of Tom Izzo’s best recruiting class. Ward was one of the top big men in the Big Ten all season, Winston proved to be the straw that stirs the drink on offense and Langford came to life over the last month or more and showed his impressive scoring ability.
It wasn’t enough to get past a veteran team like Kansas, but it was enough to believe they’ll be that much better next season.
“Yeah, it excites me but right now, I’m human; it’s hard for me to really be happy because we lost,” Langford said. “But there is another season next year and it is another chance for me to come back and be able to have a great season. I’ll remember how this feels and come back and just be more hungry.”
And learn from the things they went through, from the expectations to the injuries to the frontcourt, all things that helped lead to the Spartans needing to make a late push just to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“They gave me everything they could give me,” Izzo said. “They went through more things, with more injuries, than any team I’ve ever had, with more pressure on them. When you think of the weight of the world on those guys — carrying the streak, living up to expectations, people kind of jumping off the bandwagon — they hung in there.
“I don’t like those guys. I love those guys. They made every alum at our school proud, I’ll tell you that. The way they handled themselves in the classroom, off the court, and on the court, people should be damn proud.”
While it should also serve to make them pretty good next season, the fact they’ll be much bigger will, too. One of the biggest issues this season was the lack of depth up front. Only Ward at 6-foot-8 was a true post player and after Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter were lost to knee injuries just before the season began it was up to 6-6 Kenny Goins to fill in.
Schilling will be back next season, and there’s a chance Carter will, too. Besides that, the Spartans have 6-10 Jaren Jackson, a five-star All-American, and 6-8 Xavier Tillman, a finalist for Mr. Basketball in Michigan, already signed.
So a team that was hammered by bigger opponents won’t have that problem next season.
“So everybody can kiss my, um, ear, as far as not having enough bigs next year,” Izzo said, smiling. “Because I’m gonna have enough bigs, and I’m gonna beat the hell out of some people. There’ll be some paybacks on that. We’re not getting outrebounded again in my life. That was a frustrating part for me this year.”
It will all lead to the same sort of expectations Michigan State has become used to under Izzo. Throw in the play of Matt McQuaid, who will be a junior, and some possible additions in recruiting and there aren’t many holes in the lineup.
But there are no givens. The Spartans have learned that lesson well the past two seasons.
However, they feel like they know better now how to meet expectations.
“We’ll get back to this point next season and go even farther,” Ward said. “Monday. It will begin on Monday.”
MSU 2017-18 outlook
G Alvin Ellis III: The versatile guard provided some key minutes throughout the season.
G Eron Harris: A solid defender and scorer, Harris missed the last part of the season after injuring his knee at Purdue
F Matt Van Dyk: The former walk-on was undersized by provided athleticism and against bigger opponents.
Who might be gone
G/F Miles Bridges: The Big Ten Freshman of the Year is a likely first-round pick in the NBA Draft and will take the next few weeks to make a decision on next year.
F Ben Carter: The graduate transfer missed the season because of a knee injury and is petitioning the NCAA for sixth season.
Who will be back
G Tum Tum Nairn: He’ll once again be the emotional leader of the team as he tries to get back to the Final Four he played in as a freshman. Might see minutes diminish with continued development of Cassius Winston.
F Gavin Schilling: After missing the entire 2016-17 season because of a knee injury, Schilling will be back for a fifth season. He’ll provide much-needed defense and rebounding in the frontcourt.
G Kyle Ahrens: He was forced to play out of position quite a big because of frontcourt injuries, but he showed the shooting touch that could make him a key role player moving forward.
G Matt McQuaid: He struggled with his confidence early in the season but looked like a different player late and at tournament time. Should be an important part of the rotation.
F Kenny Goins: Forced to play center because of injuries, the one-time walk-on struggled against bigger players. Added depth up front next season will allow him to avoid size mismatches.
G Joshua Langford: Was bothered by a hamstring injury early, but came on late in the season and is just scratching the surface as a scorer as well as a defender.
G Cassius Winston: His defense lacked at times but he’s a playmaker who had the offense humming at times. An off-season spent getting stronger will be the next step for the budding star.
F Nick Ward: The one player who benefited from the frontcourt injuries, Ward became one of the best post scorers in the Big Ten. Improved defense could make him an all-conference player next season.
G Conner George: The walk-on from Okemos provides depth in the backcourt.
F Jaren Jackson: The 6-10 McDonald’s All-American has the versatility and athleticism to play the four and should make an immediate impact for the Spartans.
F Xavier Tillman: A physical presence on the block, the 6-8 Tillman is a rebounding machine that is effective as a scorer and passer out of the post that has worked to improve his perimeter game.
Who might be arriving
G Brian Bowen: The five-star all-American is a 6-7 wing that is deciding between MSU, Arizona and Creighton, and recently took a visit to DePaul.
F Brandon McCoy: The 6-10 All-American is considering MSU along with Oregon, Arizona, UNLV and San Diego State.
G Greg Elliott: The three-star guard from Detroit East English is considering Michigan State and Marquette.