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Season of new experiences has MSU ready for big stage

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Tulsa, Okla. — Michigan State has seen it all this season.

The freshman-heavy roster wasted little time jumping into the fire, playing Arizona in the season opener and losing at the buzzer before taking on the likes of Kentucky, Baylor and Duke over the next few weeks and coming up short in each of them.

They played at Madison Square Garden and at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The big stage continued in conference play with games at Williams Arena in Minnesota, Assembly Hall at Indiana and Mackey Arena at Purdue.

All of that, however, pales in comparison to what Michigan State’s freshmen will encounter tonight at the BOK Center against Miami (Fla.).

This is the NCAA Tournament, something Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford all have dreamed about, but none have played in — until now.

“It’s crazy,” Winston said. “This whole year has been full of things that you dream about growing up and then to finally do that and hit those (milestones) … this is one of those things you dream about, and now you finally get to do it.

“It’s huge. I’ve been working all my life for moments like this and to finally get the opportunity to do that is crazy.”

What’s crazy is just getting in was challenge enough for the young roster. After losing most of its frontcourt depth before the season began, and dealing with an injury to Bridges that kept the Big Ten Freshman of the Year out for seven games, the Spartans were into conference play with no guarantees.

That’s when coach Tom Izzo told them — start winning or the tournament streak would fail to reach 20 years. It was the spark they needed to finish strong and make the field as the nine-seed in the Midwest Region.

And if there was any thought they won’t be able to handle the pressure of playing in the NCAA Tournament, the last couple of months were evidence enough to Izzo that they can.

“I think it’s helped them, it’s helped me,” Izzo said. “And I think we’re going into this thing realizing, yes, we’re not overpowering anybody, but we’ve beaten some pretty good teams this year, we’ve played with some very good teams this year. We’ve watched other teams beat some good teams. It’s about a one-game matchup that you have to be better for one game, and then you have to have to find a way to be better in the next game. That’s what this brings. That’s why all the excitement. I think they’re ready for that. I really do.”

That’s not to say there won’t be nerves. Bridges said they’d be there before tip-off, but that would subside fairly quickly.

But it’s those big games the Spartans have played, the adversity they’ve already faced and the challenges they’ve been presented that will have them ready.

“The biggest thing with us is being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Langford said. “Everything’s been new for us with so many things coming toward us through the course of the season, but now it’s really not new because we know how to deal with different circumstances in so many different situations.”

That’s not to say all the pressure will be on the first-year players. Only senior Alvin Ellis and junior Tum Tum Nairn have any real tournament experience. Sophomore Matt McQuaid saw limited action in one game last season.

“This is a new experience for a lot of people on our team. It’s not only the freshmen,” Izzo said. “McQuaid only played like 14 minutes last year, so no one else has had any minutes and it’s gonna be kind of a new experience for everybody.”

That overall inexperience will be a challenge against a Miami team that is long, athletic and starts two seniors and a junior. The Hurricanes aren’t overly big in the post, which should bode well for Ward, but the guards can get in the lane and that will put pressure on the perimeter defenders.

They’ve also had their share of big wins, knocking off the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

But the Spartans believe their run has them ready, too. Young or not, they’re ready for the big stage.

“We can’t let the bright lights or anything like that get us down,” Winston said. “We have to keep playing with energy and effort every day. This year, we’ve been through it all — new arenas, crowds, hype coming in — everything they can throw at us, we’ve been through it.

“So now we’re seasoned and we’re ready.”