Portland, Ore. — Conner George saved Michigan State late Thursday night in a win over DePaul. At least, that’s the way Miles Bridges saw things.
Michigan State’s star sophomore was on the bench with an ankle injury for the opening game of the PK80 Invitational at the Moda Center and, along with a knee injury to junior Kenny Goins, the Spartans were a little thin.
Enter George, the former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship this season. Before Thursday, the sophomore was best known as the son of Michigan State volleyball coach Cathy George who is a crowd favorite at the Breslin Center when he gets in late in one-sided games.
“Give him credit, he got every loose ball and made a helluva drive there, didn’t turn the ball over and played pretty good defense,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “As Miles said (after the game), he saved us. He said, ‘He saved me. And saved us.’ I kind of would have to agree with that.”
The numbers for George wouldn’t jump off the page to the average fan. But for those that follow the Spartans, they were impressive.
George finished with a career-best seven rebounds, including five on the offensive end as Michigan State pulled away in the second half. He also played 16 minutes, by far a career high. He scored two points on a late drive, too, though it was the spark he gave on the glass that stood out.
“Just trying to bring energy, attack the glass any way possible,” George said of his approach. “Just get rebounds and create a spark for our team because when I went in it was 31-31. Those are big moments in the game and I was just trying to spark something for our team.”
It’s clear George got his shot because of the injuries the Spartans are facing. Junior Kyle Ahrens (foot) is also out and could miss the season, which leaves open the door for George to remain on the edge of the rotation.
For now, with Bridges’ status uncertain and Goins still out, he’s trying to make the most of his opportunity.
“It was a different experience, one I’ve never had before,” George said. “The coaches told me (I would play) earlier in the day and in the week once Miles went down so I was ready for it. I talked with Miles and Gavin (Schilling) on the bench and they got me mentally ready.”
And they were there to congratulate their teammate when he made a difference on the court.
“They were just happy for me,” George said. “Obviously, I don’t play as much so they were just excited to see me out there and contributing to the team. I’m just going to be ready if this happens again. I’m glad it happened today so it’s off my chest and we can continue to go from there.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas believes Duke is the most talented team in the nation, but after calling the game with Michigan State and Duke last week at the Champions Classic, he believes either is good enough to win a national title.
“I think they’re really good,” Bilas said of Michigan State. “I think they’re good enough to win the whole thing. They are good enough. I think that’s an objective fact. They are good enough to win the whole thing. They’ve run into a couple of injuries again that are not season changing. … It just affects their rotation and depth, but they’re really good and I was really impressed, even though they lost to Duke in the Champions Classic.”
Bilas, who is in Portland calling games for ESPN, expects both Michigan State and Duke to continue to improve as the season progresses.
“Both are gonna get a lot better,” Bilas said. “Michigan State is young, not as young as Duke. Duke’s ceiling is higher because they’ve got more lottery picks. Duke’s ridiculously talented. They’re by far the most talented team. By far. But they’re really young and you could see that against Portland State. The youth showed. But over the course of 40 minutes, if those guys stay healthy, that’s frightening.
“But I don’t think Michigan State is as good as they were in like 2000, 2001 because they were older then. But they’re good enough to win this thing and they’re as good as they’ve been in a few years, I think.”
Big Ten heat
As for the Big Ten, Bilas believes the Spartans are the class of the conference, but there are some challengers.
“I like Minnesota a lot,” Bilas said. “I don’t think the Big Ten this year is as good as it’s been. Michigan State is, I just think the depth of the league is not where it’s been. … I think Purdue is legit, despite the two losses, they’re legit. Michigan State is really good and Minnesota is really good. The bottom of the league is not as good. Some teams are better. Penn State is better, but Iowa has not played like I thought they would play. But it’s still a little bit early to start writing obituaries on teams.”