Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News talk about Michigan State playing at Little Caesars Arena on Friday, and facing No. 14 seed Bucknell. The Detroit News
Detroit – For at least three players on Michigan State’s roster, Friday night’s game against Bucknell in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament signified the beginning of the end.
For Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, this is it. This the final stretch of their college careers.
“Man, I’m gonna appreciate it,” Nairn said this week. “I appreciate it every day, but we got some basketball to play. Whatever happens it’s been a blessing for me, but I’m focused on doing what we can and continuing to go out and play as hard as we can.
“When it’s all said and done I’ll look back on my career and won’t have any regrets.”
The underlying question for the third-seeded Spartans as they prepared to face 14-seed Bucknell wasn’t as much about the seniors they know will move on once the season ends – whenever that might be – but about the future of freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore Miles Bridges.
Both are projected lottery picks in this summer’s NBA Draft, with Jackson expected to be picked before Bridges. The idea of Bridges coming back for a third year is far-fetched, at best, especially after the final home game this season at the Breslin Center honored him nearly as much as the actual seniors.
The less certain of the two is Jackson. His potentially high draft status seems to make him nearly a lock to be done at Michigan State after one season. However, that was far from Jackson’s thoughts at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday.
“I can't even pay attention to that,” Jackson said. “I'm too locked in on the games we have coming up.
“I just gave it thought for the seniors. It's definitely their final run at it so you got to send your seniors off the right way. As for myself, I'm just trying to go out there and play for them.”
The 6-foot-11 forward said he’s done his best since the season started to avoid looking at any of the draft projections. In fact, there’s so many of them he feels it’s hard to get an accurate idea anyway.
That’s why he’ll worry about it after the season.
“When I was in high school if (the projections) ever came out I’d probably see 30 of them and then be like, well, I’d be confused and not really care, so I’d stop looking,” Jackson said. “At that point I was in college and was continuing to work on my game and I didn’t really look.”
Those around him notice, especially his opponents.
And while they might not spend much time wondering about Jackson’s potential draft status, they understand what they’re going up against.
“Obviously he's a lottery pick-type,” Bucknell senior forward Zach Thomas said. “So it's going to be a tough matchup. I think with that you just kind of have to look at where I could limit him as best I can. And then I think I'm a matchup problem as well for him.
“You know, he's a freshman so hopefully I have a little bit of experience on him.”
Michigan State entered the game believing it had at least one advantage on Bucknell – it’s played in NBA arenas, including Little Caesars Arena.
The Spartans beat Oakland back in December and have played several games this season in NBA venues. That might create at least a minor edge.
“For some guys it's kind of like a culture shock to look around and take it all in,” junior Kenny Goins said. “But now we don't have to worry about that because we've already been here before.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t think adjusting to the NBA arena is a big deal. However, he said getting used to shooting in the different environment is important and that is often the goal of the open practices.
“I think that's what a lot of people try to do here,” Izzo said. “Like we practiced (Thursday morning) somewhere else and then we'll try to come in here and 80 percent of what we'll do is just get shots up, get the guys comfortable with the arena. And that's really what we'll do now, as they kind of say, the hay is kind of in the barn. We've done everything here the last three, four days to get ready.”
Close to home
The games this weekend aren’t only a homecoming for Detroit native Cassius Winston. It’s the same for Goins, who went to Warren Mott and whose family lives in Troy.
“It's going to feel like a home game, like we're back in the Breslin,” Goins said. “A little different, but it's just going to be really nice to see all of that love from the Michigan State fans.”
Goins said his family is so close – he estimated a 15-minute drive to the arena – that they were thinking about taking an Uber to avoid the hassle of parking.