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Niyo: MSU preaches patience with fab freshmen

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Spartan freshman class:  Nick Ward (44), Cassius Winston (5), Joshua Langford (1) and Miles Bridges (22) share a laugh while waiting for a photographer to make up his mind about a shot.

East Lansing – The old coach calls it new territory.

But Tom Izzo also is calling it an opportunity. An “incredible opportunity,” at that, this notion of entrusting his basketball program’s remarkable run of success — Michigan State is the only school in the country to win 27 or more games the last five seasons — to a team largely dependent on freshmen.

And while it’s as easy to say as it is hard to imagine, the newly-anointed Hall of Fame coach insists he’s ready to embrace the idea whole-heartedly. Maybe even good-naturedly, with the patience of a saint.

“I don’t think it will be a problem,” Izzo deadpanned Thursday as the Spartans held their annual media day at Breslin Center. “It’s one of my strengths.”

Ha! Good one, Coach. But it is one of his tasks now, like it or not, playing the role of Job on the job this fall, as he leans heavily on the best recruiting class he’s had at Michigan State. And realizes many of the duties he’d prefer to delegate to veteran leaders — a “player-coached team,” as he likes to say — will now fall back on he and his coaching staff.

That’s a fact he was reminded after three-fourths of this fabulous freshman class endured a rough night on the practice court, and only hours after one of last season’s senior captains, Matt Costello, dropped by for a workout and a visit.

“Everybody gets sick of hearing me talk about the players who came before,” Izzo sighed,. “But … I’m missing that right now.”

’We’ll handle it’

That’s not all he’s missing, obviously, thanks to the departures of Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Costello, among others. In all, the Spartans lost nearly 75 percent of their scoring — and two-thirds of the minutes played — from last year’s Big Ten runner-up squad. Throw in Gavin Schilling’s serious knee injury last week and it’s even more apparent Michigan State is going to be counting on huge contributions from the freshmen: McDonald’s All-Americans Miles Bridges and Josh Langford, as well as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, Cassius Winston, and fellow top-50 recruit Nick Ward.

“I always thought our four freshmen would play some minutes, extended minutes,” Izzo said. “Now they’re going to play a lot.

“But I think with the culture we’ve built, that’s been passed down from a lot of players, I think we’ll deal with it, we’ll handle it. Somehow, some way it’s going to work out.”

Not without some yeoman’s work from Izzo and his “invigorated” staff, though, whether it’s two-hour film sessions trying to come up with ball-screen defenses for an undersized, underage roster or lengthy freshman-orientation sessions in his office like the one the 61-year-old coach had planned later Thursday.

“I’m going to have to learn patience and deal with patience,” Izzo said. “But I don’t plan on changing a lot of things. I mean, these guys come in with bigger hype because they’ve earned it. Nobody gave these guys anything. They’ve earned what they’ve gotten.”

Just the same, though, he jokes, “I’m going to earn my money this year.”

That means the on-court teaching is happening in earnest — and loudly, as always.

“You never know what Coach is gonna say,” said Bridges, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound highlight reel who hails from Flint. “So when he goes crazy, I’m just looking at him, laughing. Like, I’ll be the only one in the gym laughing because I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He’ll see plenty before he’s done here, whether that’s next spring or the year after or however long he decides to stay in college. For the record, after losing Deyonta Davis to the NBA last spring, Izzo vows he won’t be caught off-guard by a one-and-done decision ever again.

’Something different

But therein lies the rub: Michigan State hasn’t seen anything quite like Bridges in a while. A consensus top-10 player in the Class of 2016, he chose Michigan State over Kentucky and Indiana, among others. Izzo doesn’t call him a blue-chip recruit, but instead a rare “blue-collar superstar” because of a workmanlike attitude that matches his uncommon athleticism.

“He can do it all,” said junior guard Lourawls Nairn, the unquestioned leader of this year’s team. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with, hands down. He can do everything. He can pass it, he can shoot it, he can put it on the floor, he has a high IQ. I think he can guard every position.”

And he may have to, given what’s missing. They all might, from Bridges to Langford to Winston — “Cassius has a completely different aura to him,” Izzo says — to Ward, the lowest-rated player of the group. He came in, lost 20-plus pounds and became the “surprise of September,” according to his coach. And other than Bridges and sophomore Kenny Goins, who’s coming off knee surgery, he’s the only player over 6-foot-5 on the roster who’s healthy right now.

Izzo’s not exactly borrowing John Calipari’s Kentucky playbook yet, but he might be reading from the CliffsNotes version this winter, admitting Thursday, “I can see us starting four freshmen, sooner or later. It could happen.”

“So I think the biggest thing for us is we have to make sure we’re coachable,” Langford said. “Because a lot of times, freshmen come in and think they know a lot, think they have it all figured out. But you really don’t.”

What they all know is the nonconference schedule that Izzo politely terms “brutal” tips off in just a few weeks. It’ll feature games against Duke, Kentucky, Arizona and possibly Louisville — that’d be four top-15 teams in a span of 19 days — and a total of 13,600 flight miles with trips to the Bahamas, Hawaii and New York City.

“I think we’re going to find out a lot in the first month, which might not be healthy for me,” Izzo said.

But you know what? It just might be fun, too.

“I’m kind of enjoying something different — a little change,” he added. “I’m going to enjoy having a little pressure on me to try to bring along some young guys. I think that’s going to be a positive thing, not a negative thing.”

Izzo, MSU enter 'new territory' with talented freshmen