Here are five story lines that could shape Michigan State’s basketball season.
1. Pressure is on Bridges
If there’s a preseason award the sophomore wing hasn’t won, it would be hard to find. The hype is warranted, considering the 6-foot-7 Flint native would have likely been a lottery pick had he decided to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season.
Instead, Bridges decided to come back to Michigan State. There were plenty of reasons, but none bigger than having the chance to win a national championship. That comes with a certain amount of pressure but coach Tom Izzo believes Bridges can handle it. If he can take advantage of the Spartans’ depth and make those around him better, Bridges might just get everything he hoped for when he decided the NBA could wait.
2. Frontcourt depth
It wasn’t long ago that 6-foot-5 former walk-on Matt Van Dyk was covering 7-foot-1 Isaac Haas of Purdue. But that was the reality of last season — Michigan State had no depth in the frontcourt as 6-8 Nick Ward accounted for all of Michigan State’s bigs. It forced Bridges, 6-6 Kenny Goins and 6-5 Kyle Ahrens to play out of position, along with Van Dyk.
That’s all changed this season as seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter are back after missing last season with knee injuries while 6-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. and 6-8 Xavier Tillman are true freshmen. It makes MSU a matchup problem for nearly every team it will play, a complete 180 from a season ago.
3. The difference-maker
There is no argument that Bridges’ return is the key to making Michigan State a national championship contender. But what might put the Spartans over the edge is the arrival of Jackson, a 6-11 forward who can shoot the 3, score in the paint, and with a wing span of nearly 8 feet is a defensive nightmare for opposing teams.
In his first exhibition game, Jackson had eight blocks and scored 14 points. There was a learning curve against the physical play of Georgia, but in the final exhibition game Jackson flashed as a shooter, hitting a pair of 3-pointers. He’s unlike any player Michigan State has had under Izzo and might be as important as Bridges in producing a championship.
4. Who shoots the ball?
Imagine this Spartans team with a sharp-shooter like Bryn Forbes, a member of the last Final Four team in 2015 who’s now getting it done in the NBA for the Spurs. Michigan State is still searching for that consistent outside threat, though it’s not short on possibilities.
Junior Matt McQuaid has had his moments, but has lacked consistency, while sophomore Joshua Langford has the tools, but like McQuaid has been inconsistent.
The wild card could be point guard Cassius Winston. The sophomore has been the best shooter in the exhibition season and is showing signs of developing into an All-Big Ten player that will see the majority of minutes over senior Tum Tum Nairn.
5. Early indications
Like most seasons, Michigan State has a non-conference schedule full of tough tests, giving a good idea of whether the Spartans are worthy of the hype.
After opening the season Friday at home against North Florida, Michigan State heads to Chicago for the Champions Classic on Nov. 14 to take on top-ranked Duke in a 1 vs. 2 matchup. The last time that happened in Chicago, No. 2 MSU beat No. 1 Kentucky, 78-74, in 2013.
After that, Michigan State could see No. 9 North Carolina in the PK80 Classic in Portland on Thanksgiving weekend and take on No. 14 Notre Dame at home Nov. 30 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Add in a Dec. 16 matchup with Oakland at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. and it will be a tough stretch. Life will be no easier in conference play as Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue were all ranked in the preseason Associated Press poll while Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan all received votes.