Spartans, Jackson try not to overreact to reunion

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Tulsa, Okla. — Back in October of 2015, Miles Bridges wore an interesting shirt when he announced he was committing to play at Michigan State.

He was back in his hometown of Flint and on the back of the shirt it listed five names. Four were of the current Michigan State freshman class — Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward. By that day, all had committed to be Spartans.

The fifth name was Josh Jackson.

The shirt served as one of many pitches Bridges was making to his childhood friend. At the time, Jackson, the Detroit native who was playing his senior season at Prolific Prep in Napa, Calif., was the top recruit in the nation who had basically boiled down his choice to either Michigan State or Kansas.

Bridges and Winston, another Detroiter who first played with Jackson in third grade, were pushing hard to reunite in East Lansing.

A few months later, however, Jackson opted for Kansas.

Niyo: Spartans’ Langford rising to Izzo’s challenge

“I think they understood that we all made the best decision for ourselves,” Jackson said on Saturday. “My family still supported me and were happy with my decision. I know a lot of Michigan State fans were pretty hurt but you can’t please everybody.”

While the reunion never materialized with the old friends wearing the same uniform, it will on Sunday as top-seeded Kansas takes on No. 9 Michigan State in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s far from the first time the Jayhawks and Spartans have met on the big stage, but it will be the first time in college that the three friends will all face each other.

“He’s like a brother to me,” Bridges said. “Every time we play against each other it’s always competitive. I expect it to be the same tomorrow.”

Jackson felt the same way about facing Bridges, another of the nation’s top recruits.

“We’re both competitive and love to win,” Jackson said. “Either way, whoever wins the game is gonna talk trash to the other one later, so it’s always fun and we’ll try to win the game so we won’t have to hear it later from the other one.”

The relationship has come full circle here in the NCAA Tournament, but it began years ago. First, Winston and Jackson were teammates in third grade and would play against Bridges. Later, Bridges and Jackson played together.

Even then, they knew they were destined for big things.

“That’s the crazy part,” Winston said. “It’s crazy to think back to what we used to be and see what we’ve become. … Since the second or third grade, being on the same AAU team I watched him grow to become one of the best players in the country. I’m proud of him and all he’s accomplished.”

They’ve all accomplished plenty since then. Jackson won a state title as a sophomore at Detroit Consortium before heading west while Bridges was at Flint Southwestern as a freshman before becoming an All-American at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. Winston capped his senior season at U-D Jesuit with a Class A title and Mr. Basketball honors.

Now, as starters at the next level, they’ll be faced with putting aside friendship for 40 minutes, something that doesn’t seem it will be all that difficult. Each team has plenty on the line. Kansas is one of the favorites to win the tournament while Michigan State is in the unfamiliar position of underdog but riding high after a 20-point win over Miami on Friday.

Getting to the Sweet 16 and continuing on the path to the Final Four will be the focus of all three.

“It’s just competing. It’s a basketball game,” Jackson said. “It’s like sometimes you don’t like your brother, you fight your brother but the next day you’re still brothers, you’re still friends. We’ll just come out tomorrow and give it all we’ve got and after the game we’ll still have that connection.”

Jackson and Bridges should get plenty of chances to play head-to-head on Sunday. It’s a natural matchup that will be critical to both teams.

“Certainly I don’t see any way around them not being matched up against each other a lot,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I’m not saying every possession the entire possession, but there’s — I really believe what’s best for both teams is that for them to guard somebody naturally they’re supposed to guard, and that’s each other. So it’ll be a fun matchup.”

Guarding against getting too hyped to face a close friend is high on the list for both coaches.

Self said he’s talked about it with Jackson and Izzo indicated he’d do the same with Bridges and Winston, especially Bridges, who struggled early in the year against Kentucky when he scored six points and committed nine turnovers against a Wildcats team that included several players to whom he’d been close.

“He had great respect for Kentucky and some of those friends and he wanted to play well in that game,” Izzo said. “He had more turnovers than points and I kind of made a joke about that last night and we laughed. … Now I think he’s more mature to handle those things.

“What I think they have now is respect. Respect is the name of the game. You respect your opponent, you respect the player, you respect the coaches you go against and Miles and Cash will be fine.”

9 Michigan State vs. 1 Kansas  

When: Sunday, 5:15 p.m.

Where:  BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.

TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 20-14, Kansas 29-4

At stake: Spot in Midwest Regional semifinals against Purdue-Iowa State winner. @mattcharboneau