Michigan State is the new No. 1 college basketball team in the country. It has the talent to back it up.
Two Michigan State players — sophomore Miles Bridges at No. 10 and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 17 — are on ESPN’s list of top 25 college basketball players, with the second version posted Thursday. A third — sophomore Nick Ward — didn’t make the cut, but warranted a lengthy postscript to explain why the Spartans’ big man was excluded after he was ranked No. 18 on the preseason list.
Michigan’s Moritz Wagner, who was No. 24 in the preseason list and has been dealing with a right foot and ankle injury, dropped off the list. Virginia Commonwealth’s Justin Tillman, a Detroit Pershing product, cracked the rankings at No. 25.
Bridges dropped one spot on the the list, which ESPN’s John Gasaway writes isn’t a mock draft, but a reflection purely of college basketball performance.
And, make no mistake, Bridges has been performing, leading MSU in scoring (17 points per game) and rebounds (7.8) heading into Michigan State’s game Thursday night against Maryland.
“Bridges is a warrior who was a unanimous selection as the preseason Big Ten player of the year,” Gasaway writes. “If anyone can live up to such preposterous expectations, it’s Tom Izzo’s sophomore. The Spartans haven’t played a major-conference opponent in four weeks, but Bridges is about to take on the best that the Big Ten has to offer. That promises to be quite a sight. At no point in the last 15 years has Izzo given a starter as high a share of MSU’s shot attempts as he has to his 6-7 star this season.”
Jackson was unranked in the preseason list, but has vaulted into the rankings both because of his shot-blocking exploits and his ability to drain 3-pointers and free throws, Gasaway writes. Jackson averages more than three blocks again, to go with 10.5 points and 7.1 rebounds, and 81.5 percent free-throw shooting.
“He is the rare big in 2018 whose game might translate equally well at both the college and pro levels,” Gasaway writes.
Ward averages 15.4 points and 7.5 rebounds, but Gasaway notes he averages 18.5 minutes per game — and has yet to play 25 in a contest. Ward was ranked No. 18 on the preseason list.
“Ward will be one of the best players in the country when Izzo gives him minutes,” Gasaway writes, “the key term there being ‘when.’ ”
The 6-foot-8 senior Tillman averages 18.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for the Rams.
“This could be the first season since 2009-10 where VCU doesn’t make the NCAA tournament,” Gasaway writes, “but anyone still following along is seeing an outstanding senior campaign from Tillman. The 6-8 scorer has rebooted himself as a stretch-5, to the tune of 47 percent 3-point shooting on two to three attempts per game. Meanwhile his production inside the arc has been, as always, prodigious.”