East Lansing — On a gray afternoon in early April, hundreds of fans gathered around the Sparty statue on Michigan State’s campus, waiting to hear from the best basketball player on campus.
It was that afternoon when Miles Bridges told the Spartan faithful what they’d been dying to hear — he was forgoing a shot at being a lottery pick in the NBA draft and returning for his sophomore season at Michigan State.
As he said that day, he had unfinished business. Bridges came to Michigan State to win a national championship, and to him, the choice was simple.
On the outside, that’s the day it began — the push for the program’s third national title and second under coach Tom Izzo. In reality, it began before that moment. That’s because while Bridges kept the fans in the dark — not to mention his coach — those close to him knew there was no drama.
“Yeah, I knew,” Tum Tum Nairn said.
When the Michigan State captain knew for sure he couldn’t pinpoint, but it was well before the April 12 announcement, well before the season ended with a loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Bridges had known for some time, and the moment the season ended the quest for 2017-18 began.
“It's been a team that's been driven all summer and fall,” Izzo said.
They’ve been driven by that one goal. The one thing that has pushed Izzo since he took the Spartans to the national championship in 2000 and one that has pushed teams since. The Spartans came close in 2009, losing to a loaded North Carolina team in the title game. They had another great team in 2014 but ran into a UConn buzzsaw in the regional final. The Spartans were back in the Final Four in 2015 — a more improbable run — before going into the 2015-16 season expecting to be back.
That team, led by senior Denzel Valentine, talked openly about winning a national championship only to lose to Middle Tennessee State in the first round.
But again, that’s life in East Lansing. Expectations are part of the deal at Michigan State. When you have seven Final Four appearances and 12 Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles combined, that’s how it goes.
So, there’s no real push to avoid the hype. The Spartans have one goal as the season gets set to tip off for real at 7 p.m. Friday against North Florida — win it all.
Like past seasons, they’re not running from it.
“That’s the one thing when you see the Spartan across our chest, you see the banners here,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “That’s part of the program. That’s what the fans expect, no matter what players are coming in.
“This year, we’ve got a good team. There’s no way around it. The sky’s the limit for us. The biggest thing is we hold those expectations on ourselves. It doesn’t matter what the fans say. We know what we’re capable of and we hold ourselves accountable for that.”
There’s plenty of reason to believe Michigan State has as good a shot as any team in the nation, and Bridges’ return is the biggest one.
The 6-foot-7 wing from Flint is collecting preseason awards on an almost daily basis and spent his offseason pushing himself to get better.
“I’m gonna be a lot more versatile,” Bridges said. “If I have a mismatch in the post I’ll be able to post up. If I have a mismatch up top I can use my guard skills. My conditioning is better, I’ve slimmed down. I think I do a lot more things better. I rebound better, I pass better, shoot better. Going to the three spot on the wing was a great transition for me.”
It puts him in a position to be even better than the 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds he averaged last season. But what makes him so important to this team goes further than on the court.
As Izzo has said, Bridges is a “blue-collar superstar,” even calling him weird. But he is different and his love for his school and his teammates is a two-way street.
“He’s still the same humble kid that came here last year as a freshman,” Nairn said. “He’s definitely more mature and he was really mature last year, but even more mature this year. I think he’s gotten a lot better in basketball.”
The Spartans are more than Bridges, however. At least, there are many more reasons the hype is so high. His classmates — Winston, shooting guard Joshua Langford and center Nick Ward — are all expected to have big years while 6-11 freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. might end up going higher in next spring’s draft than Bridges.
Jackson has been impressive in the exhibition season and already understands the culture of being in the spotlight at Michigan State and playing games like the likely 1 vs. 2 matchup with Duke at the Champions Classic on Nov. 14.
“That was one of the reasons I came here,” Jackson said. “We don't hide from anybody and that's been proven.”
They won’t need to hide from anyone this year. Hampered by a lack of frontcourt depth last season, that’s far from the reality this season. Ward and Jackson are joined up front by freshman Xavier Tillman while the return of seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter — both missed last season with knee injuries — makes the Spartans loaded up front.
“It makes everybody better at the end of the day,” said Ward, who had 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds a game as a freshman. “We have seven, eight bigs, so this is going to make us better at the end of the day and makes us go harder. It's a lot more competitive.”
Things are also expected to get better in the backcourt.
Winston should play the bulk of the minutes at the point and be spelled by Nairn, the emotional leader. They’ll even play some together as Winston has been Michigan State’s best shooter in the exhibition season.
And Langford, who battled a bum hamstring for the better part of last season, is healthy and expected to be a consistent scorer from the shooting guard position, though that consistency was lacking in exhibition play. Junior Matt McQuaid also will be counted on to score.
It all adds up to a deep team that openly accepts the attention, and the pressure, of being in the spotlight.
Of course, Izzo wouldn’t want his team thinking any different.
“There should be expectations. There better be expectations,” Izzo said. “There should be pressure. There better be pressure.
“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.”
As Bridges and Sparty graced the cover of Sports Illustrated recently, Bridges joked about avoiding the jinx. But with the best bet for player of the year leading a deep and talented group, the bigger surprise would be if the Spartans don’t contend.
With the approach they’ve taken all offseason and even now, however, that doesn’t seem likely.
“You know what you're supposed to do. Do your job. It can't get any simpler than that,” Langford said. “We have expectations for ourselves, and everybody has expectations for us as well, but I think the biggest thing for us is to make sure that we come in and do our job every day, and I think everything else will take care of itself.”