Izzo, MSU enter 'new territory' with talented freshmen
East Lansing – Maybe it’s just the nature of college basketball, but there’s some new faces around Michigan State basketball these days.
For a program that has had its share of outstanding seniors – from Mateen Cleaves to Draymond Green to Denzel Valentine – it seems a bit odd to see a heralded group of freshman come bursting through the doors with so much expectation awaiting them.
But that’s what college basketball has become, more and more each year, as the one-and-done phenomena has taken over and the idea of a top-rated player sticking around for more than a year or two seems foreign.
It’s been the norm at places like Kentucky for a while and has started to take hold at plenty of other blue-blood programs around the country as well. And now, after one of coach Tom Izzo’s top senior classes has moved on to the NBA and the Spartans dealt with their own one-and-done following the early departure of Deyonta Davis, relying on their share of young guys is the reality.
For Izzo and Michigan State it helps that the group coming in might be the best the coach entering his 22nd season at the helm has ever brought to East Lansing. It’s led by a pair of five-stars – blue-chip forward Miles Bridges and understated guard Joshua Langford. Point guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward round out the class, a pair of four-stars that each ranked in the top 50 in the nation.
In total, the class ranked No. 3 in the country behind Duke and Kentucky and no longer does Izzo have the luxury of slowly working them into the rotation. He’ll need them to play, and play a lot. That, alone, means Michigan State is entering uncharted waters.
“It's just a little more unknown this year,” Izzo said at Michigan State’s media day on Thursday. “I don't know how freshmen are going to respond. This is new territory. … Very seldom are we left with I don't know what's going to happen.
“I can see us starting four freshmen sooner or later. It could happen. That's not the norm at 98 percent of the schools. So it's a little bit of new territory.”
The benefit Izzo has this season, one in which his team is ranked No. 9 in the preseason coaches’ poll – the highest of any Big Ten team – is the fact his freshmen are talented and fill plenty of holes.
Bridges is the 6-foot-7 forward from Flint who can do it all. If there’s a near slam-dunk one-and-done, he’s it. A McDonald’s All-American, Bridges can play almost any position on the court, including point guard.
“Only the special ones can do what this guy can do,” senior Eron Harris said of Bridges.
Bridges didn’t take long to prove that to teammates, who are still talking about a dunk in open gym over senior Gavin Schilling that had jaws dropping. But as Langford pointed out about his roommate, Bridges is a humble star who is happy to be where he is, in no hurry to head to the NBA.
“I love college, I love the game,” Bridges said. “The fans are crazy and it’s rare you get coached by a Hall of Fame coach. I want to cherish every moment I’m here.”
With Langford, Michigan State gets a polished winner. The 6-5 shooting guard is a five-time player of the year in Alabama and has maturity rarely seen by someone so young. Bridges joked on Thursday that Langford is “19 but acts like he’s 40.”
That will happen when you’ve been through what Langford has, who battled bacterial meningitis when he was 12 years old, a battle that nearly took his life.
“Getting through that, it took my faith to a whole new level,” Langford said. “I went through that at 12 years old. So at 12 years old I had a different perspective on life. I understood there’s more to it than basketball. Because at any time, any given moment, you can lose your life. And most importantly, basketball can be gone just like this. You’ve got to understand there’s more to it than going out there and putting a jersey on, more to it than going out there and just lacing your shoes up or making a basket.”
Winston is different from all the freshmen. The 6-foot guard from U-D Jesuit sees the floor well and Izzo compared his passing to Magic Johnson.
“Just an extremely fun player to play with,” Izzo said, “because if you're open, he's going to find you.”
And Ward is working into a roll that is growing by the day. After injuries to Schilling and Ben Carter, the 6-8 native of Gahanna, Ohio, is going to play plenty and has already dropped more than 20 pounds. Izzo compared him to former Spartan Zach Randolph.
“I knew I would get a decent amount playing time from start,” Ward said. “Now with two centers out it will be even more, so I have to prepare myself.”
They’ve done well so far, Izzo said, all four buying into the culture at Michigan State, understanding that harmony is as big as anything.
“Here at Michigan State we promote a family atmosphere,” Langford said. “This is a big family and if you see one of us out you use the rest of team, you don’t see separate groups. We’re all together and that helps on court with chemistry.”
It’s coming quickly with this group of freshmen and that’s making the entire team a tight one. There has been no jealousy from Harris or Schilling, or Alvin Ellis or Matt McQuaid or Kenny Goins. And Tum Tum Nairn has been as crucial as any to welcoming the youngsters.
Time will tell if it means a successful season. There will be challenges, a tough non-conference schedule the first. But Izzo knows he’s got a special group to begin with.
“Let's not get mixed up by a top recruiting class,” Izzo said. “It does not always mean you're going to have the same kind of players as a Kentucky or Duke. At the same time these kids have earned their right to be ranked where they were ranked. That's in the top five classes.
“Now they have to perform like they're ranked. I have to put them in a position to do that. That will be my job. I'm going to take that job as seriously as I can, have some fun.”