Versatile Ahrens fills crucial void for Spartans

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

East Lansing — A few months ago, there was a chance Kyle Ahrens might be spending the season on the bench at Michigan State, contributing more in practice as he took a redshirt season as a sophomore.

It didn’t take long, however, for those plans to get squashed. The offseason departures of Deyonta Davis to the NBA and Marvin Clark and Javon Bess to transfer made the frontcourt fairly thin for the Spartans. And with the likely season-ending injuries that occurred before the first game to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, the notion of a redshirt was pretty well history.

It meant Ahrens was going to play a role this season — maybe not a role that included huge minutes, but one that would provide crucial depth.

Well, that’s been tossed to the side as well with the injury to freshman Miles Bridges. The result has been three straight starts for Ahrens and an average of 22 minutes a game. On top of that, the 6-foot-5 shooter has played just about every positon on the court outside of point guard.

“We’re moving Kyle around,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He actually played, I think, five minutes of center (against Tennessee Tech). Does the world end? No. But is it fair to put a guy in that position? Probably not. But like I told him, he’s in the same boat I’m in. I can’t worry about things that I can’t control. He’s got an opportunity to play. He’s got to make the best of it.”

That will be the key for Ahrens, who will continue to see significant playing at least until Bridges returns from his ankle injury, something that won’t come until at least Big Ten play begins on Dec. 27.

The former prep standout from Versailles, Ohio, has gotten more comfortable each game as he gets used to moving around the floor.

“Absolutely, confidence always key,” Ahrens said. “I give my teammates all the credit. They’re helping me out every day. Kenny Goins and Matt Van Dyk are making sure I do everything right in practice and Coach is always pushing me, so it’s a team effort.”

The results for Ahrens have been mixed. He was 0-for-3 from the field with four rebounds in his first start against Oral Roberts but bounced back against Tennessee Tech with nine points and seven rebounds.

It’s more of the production Ahrens was used to giving in his high school days when he averaged 30 points and 8.3 rebounds as a senior. But a lingering leg injury slowed him last season and the one-time depth made a redshirt likely this year.

Now, however, Ahrens is relishing his opportunity, even if it comes trying to play new positions.

“Yeah, it’s hard, getting all the strategy down and everything,” said Ahrens, who admitted he didn’t ever realize he was playing center in the last game until afterward. “I just match up with my man and don’t really worry about the position, I just worry about what I’ve got to do.

“At the end of the day when you have the people who I have around me helping me out it makes everything a lot easier.”

Izzo has been hard on Ahrens, pushing to get more out of him. However, Izzo has also realized he’s asking a lot of the sophomore.

“It’s hard to play hard when you’re not sure what you’re doing,” Izzo said. “There’s got to be a comfort level that you have if you are thinking instead of reacting. When you move positions and you’re kind of put in different spots, it’s difficult. I don’t have a lot of patience for that until the game’s over and the locker room is done and then I go to my office and I watch the film and I say, ‘What do I expect? What should I expect?’”

The minutes for Ahrens and Van Dyk will likely diminish when Bridges returns, but until then, Izzo will keep mixing and matching, moving guys into spots they’re not used to playing.

It’s a necessity for now as Michigan State prepares to host Northeastern on Sunday. When the ball tips, Izzo will expect the best from Ahrens, regardless of where he plays or for how many minutes.

“Every time you see that something doesn’t work, you’ve got to figure out why,” Izzo said. “It’s not as smooth for me, it’s not as smooth for them. So in some ways we’re all in the same boat and I think that brings camaraderie with your staff, your players, everybody. It’s not the us-against-world mentality, it’s us-against-the-world to survive.”

Northeastern at Michigan State

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Northeastern 5-5; Michigan State 7-4

Outlook: The game is the last of an MSU-Northeastern triple-header that includes women’s basketball at noon and hockey at 3 p.m. The teams all played on the same weekend last season at Northeastern. … The Huskies have lost three of the last four but are coming off a win over Vermont and opened the season with victories over Boston and Connecticut. Senior guard T.J. Williams is averaging 21.9 points a game.