Detroit — Their 29-4 record somehow got picked at and picked on. They beat few teams of note, lost in the Big Ten tournament to their rival and weren’t considered a lock to play at Little Caesars Arena.
Yet the nitpicking hasn’t prevented one predictable rite: Plenty of people are picking the Spartans to go a long way, even all the way.
Is it because of Tom Izzo, a master of March tumult, and because Michigan State has two first-round NBA picks and a creative, sharpshooting guard? Sure. But the unspoken reason rests with the soft-spoken sophomore star who turned down the NBA for another run. I don’t know if an NCAA Tournament favorite can have its star and its X factor be the same person, but that’s what Miles Bridges is for the Spartans.
He won a Big Ten regular-season title and a basketful of awards, and yet appears capable of giving more, and is fully aware now is the time to do so, as the Spartans open the Tournament against Bucknell.
The pressure may be unfair, but it’s unavoidable.
“When I came back, I wanted to win a national championship,” Bridges said. “Now that it’s here, I’m gonna have to play. I can’t talk anymore, I have to go out there and win it. I’m definitely more focused than ever. I’m going to try to take over the game.”
He says it several times, as if he has to talk himself into accepting it. It’s true but it’s not easy, not when surrounded by such gifted players as Cassius Winston, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and a deep roster.
Is Bridges capable of taking over? Perhaps, but the larger question: Is he comfortable doing it?
It’s the question Izzo has asked so often, he feels bad asking it again. Bridges numbers are virtually identical to his numbers as a freshman. His scoring average is exactly the same (16.9) and his assists are up, but his rebounding is down (8.3-6.9) and so is his shooting (48.6-46.3 percent).
He rightly was a unanimous first-team all-Big Ten player and is a consensus second-team All-American. In some ways, the 6-7 Bridges is stuck between positions, between a small forward and a power forward, a driver and a shooter, a star and a facilitator.
Would he score more if surrounded by lesser talent? Of course. But this is the trade-off for a multi-talented player, especially as Winston has developed into such a lethal 3-point threat (second in the nation at 52.6 percent), and as Jackson possesses such inside-outside qualities. Bridges sometimes doesn’t know where to go on the floor, to his left or his right, to the hoop or the 3-point line. Izzo has an idea: Go straight to the basket.
“I’d still like to see him be a little more selfish, I really would,” Izzo said. “I think we’ve figured out a couple different ways he can be more selfish — in the post, with the ball, driving. It can’t be a fadeaway 3. I’d like to see more catch-and-go, a more aggressive approach when he catches the ball.”
Again, he’s not required to do it all, just do more, and do it when it really matters. Bridges’ gentlemanly demeanor and unselfish style make it hard, but he says he’s become more comfortable with it. The only time the Spartans were in a tight game in the closing seconds against a top team, it indeed was Bridges who demanded the ball and took the shot, hitting a 3-pointer to beat Purdue 68-65. That was the ah-ha moment, and it hasn’t really been required since.
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
“Every team has that person, and he’s our guy,” Winston said. “He’s always going to have the pressure on his shoulders, and he doesn’t let that beat him down. And he knows he has teammates to help lift him up.”
Bridges’ left-handed shot is fluid, so the 3-pointer (36.9 percent) is tempting. But he doesn’t often get open 3s, so driving makes more sense. But he sometimes struggles on the dribble, so maybe shooting makes more sense. These are the mental machinations Bridges goes through. And then, just in case his mind wasn’t cluttered enough, there was the report before the Big Ten tournament loosely implicating him in the FBI probe of a sports agent firm. Bridges was briefly ineligible as the school investigated an alleged $400 payment to his mother, and then reinstated.
It’s all part of the turmoil and talent that puts Michigan State in such a spotlight. But if the Spartans were a weary group late in the season, they may be rejuvenated now. Here they were in the Pistons’ locker room at Little Caesars Arena Thursday, joking about who had the better Sports Illustrated cover, Bridges or Jackson? (Naturally, Bridges voted for Jackson’s).
Ask Bridges if returning was worth it, he smiles. He said he wanted to “speak things into existence” — in other words, talk about a championship and make it happen.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “We have the opportunity now to win the national championship, and that was my biggest goal. It’s been fun, for sure. No great story comes without trials and tribulations, so I’m happy we went through all of that.”
Popular championship pick
The tribulations might have dampened enthusiasm at times but they didn’t dampen expectations. Michigan State is among the most-popular championship picks, chosen by everyone from Charles Barkley to Jay Bilas to Dick Vitale to former President Obama.
That’s the never-ending contradiction for the Spartans. Some thought they were overrated, others thought they deserved better than a 3 seed. Some thought their schedule was weak, others thought their talent was impressive but not completely realized.
Amid the inconsistencies, the Spartans have developed depth and a sizeable chip, pretty much how Izzo prefers it.
“I’m not gonna apologize for being 29-4,” Izzo said. “I think the problem we’ve had is, expectations are high, and deservedly should be. But they were high at Duke and Carolina, and Carolina lost 10 games. Villanova lost a couple games. They were real high at Purdue, and they lost four of their last nine. We’ve just had a few added distractions that I’ll probably never be able to weigh, what those did to this team. That isn’t a hide-behind, that’s the flat-out truth.”
The players actually have done a better job handling distractions than Izzo, who struggled with some early pointed questions.
It’s about basketball now, which is the only way they can approach it, and this is a team that should be steeled for the noise.
And this is a player who should be steeled for the scrutiny. Bridges hears it from everyone, especially his coach.
“That’s why coach Izzo is a great coach,” Bridges said. “Any other coach would’ve probably just let me go out there and do my thing. But he wants me to take over games, so that’s what I have to do. It could mean getting rebounds, or just getting easy shots for my teammates by drawing attention to myself.”
It doesn’t come naturally for Bridges, drawing attention, but it’s the formula now. The more he gets, the further the Spartans should go.