East Lansing – Dealing with high expectations is nothing new around the Michigan State basketball program, but as practice for the 2017-18 season began on Friday, those expectations are as lofty as they’ve been in some time.
Buoyed by the return of Miles Bridges and the arrival of five-star big man Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans are one of a handful of teams expected to make a push to the Final Four and compete for a national title. They were ranked No. 2 in Blue Ribbon Basketball’s preseason poll and Bridges was a second-team All-American.
All that means there will be plenty of pressure on the Spartans, and coach Tom Izzo will soon have a good idea of how his team handles the added attention.
“You really look for some signs, you know,” Izzo said before heading out onto the practice court. “Are guys gonna work harder or think they arrived? What are the dreams and goals? Are they really big for themselves and for the team or are they just, ‘Yeah, we accomplished something and we’re picked in the top 5?’
“The other thing you look for is, does a guy that doesn’t go pro that could go pro, is he gonna bounce back now or is he gonna kind of figure, ‘I don’t have to go to class or I don’t have to do this. Who cares about the academics? I’ve already arrived. I could have already gone so I just got to maintain what I got.’
“I think nobody is resting on their laurels. I think a lot of guys had great summers. We’ll see now as it gets turned up a little bit and basketball season starts to come – more exposure for them, more interest for them. How do they handle that? I like our chances of handling it well. They just seem to be a group that is more driven on what they want to accomplish personally and with the team than they are about what people think or what people say about them.”
Bridges, of course, is the driving force. Many believed he would have been a lottery pick had he entered last summer’s NBA draft. However, he surprised many when he announced he’d be back for his sophomore season.
And instead of resting on those laurels, as Izzo said, Bridges has pushed himself on and off the court since last March.
“Miles is about as far from that as there is in a person,” Izzo said, explaining how Bridges won’t be content. “He had an incredible summer academically and is off to a good start. Now, why does that matter? It just kind of tells you something about him.”
The Spartans will spend the next few weeks learning about many things, including how Jackson and fellow freshman Xavier Tillman fit in, as well as trying to figure a way to develop a rotation on a deep roster as sophomores Joshua Langford, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston look to make big jumps in their second seasons. Add in senior guard Tum Tum Nairn and junior Matt McQuaid, and Michigan State is not short on options.
And while injuries were an issue last season, center Gavin Schilling is healthy and forward Ben Carter is nearly 100 percent after both dealt with knee injuries last season. Only forward Kyle Ahrens, who is dealing with a minor foot injury, didn’t practice on Friday.
“Other than that, I feel like we’re as healthy as we’ve been,” Izzo said.
In the meantime, as Michigan State prepares to tip off the season for real on Nov. 10 against North Florida followed by a matchup with Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 14, it will continue to deal with the talk of hanging more banners at the Breslin Center.
But it’s exactly how Izzo wants it.
“Our program’s to the point where you should, we should and our fans should expect that we’re gonna be knocking on the door to do some important things,” he said. “This year, I couldn’t even hide behind that, and I haven’t hid behind that. I know what kind of team we have.
“I’m excited to get the opportunity. It’s a privilege. Or, like Tum says, ‘We don’t gotta do this, we get to do this.’ And that’s been the line of our team all summer. Quit looking at it like it’s a chore. We don’t have to do this, we get to do this. And it’s a privilege. And it’s a privilege to coach these guys.”