Preseason injuries. Mid-season injuries. Inability to gel. Young and experienced. Lack of depth. Most teams who deal with this much baggage for any given season in any sport is surely to have a disappointing campaign.
Yet, the Michigan State basketball team was able to muster together 20 wins and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to some stellar play from high-profile freshmen and a Hall of Fame head coach. Disappointing for their standards? Perhaps. But they’ll surely take it and use it as a stepping stone for next season.
Spartans head coach Tom Izzo went in real depth on not only the 90-70 loss to (1) Kansas in the Round of 32 tilt on Sunday, but more so the season and his approach to how he coached this year’s team.
“All year, what I was trying to do is coach for games like this,” Izzo said minutes after walking off the BOK Center court. “I wasn’t coaching to win games; I don’t need to win games. That’s good, but it doesn’t really excite me. What excites me is getting good enough to compete in these kinds of games and I think we learned a little bit in those last 10 minutes that we’ve got some work to do in that respect.
“What Miles said is true. There were a lot of teams throughout the country in the last two or three years that would have crumbled from what we went through. His injury out there today was like poetic justice — it’s going to end just like it started with the injuries.”
Izzo knows that being a part of a program with a proud winning tradition — having clinched a 20th consecutive tournament appearance this year — comes with having a big target on your back and be judged on how you perform on the biggest of stages. For Izzo this season, however, the mantra was altered just a bit, given the cards he was dealt with.
“The measuring stick is not to beat the team you’re playing sometimes,” Izzo said. “It’s to figure out how do you do things to beat the best teams? And that’s where our program is, to me. So that was the frustration sometimes because I knew unless we got better at some things, sooner or later they would be our downfall.
“But do I have any regrets? I have none. I couldn’t have asked for more from this team.”
No question that the biggest off-season storyline surrounding Michigan State will be the status of superstar freshman Miles Bridges. For many, the question is not if he will be a one-and-done, but rather when he will declare for the NBA Draft. But Bridges does not appear to be in a terrible hurry.
“I love my team, but I’m always going to make the best decision for myself,” said Bridges, who averaged just shy of 17 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference honors. “I still don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I’m just going to talk to my mom and my coaches about the situation, try to get some feedback and make my decision.
“The potential for this team is through the roof, especially for Nick, Josh, Cash, because of the culture here. They listen to whatever you say, they’re willing to work for everything and they’re dawgs on the court.”
After not having a one-and-done player for 15 years, Izzo and the Spartans could have a player leave after just one season in consecutive seasons. Last year, it was Deyonta Davis prematurely ending his collegiate career to go pro. No doubt though that Izzo will continue to be a good mentor in helping Bridges make the right decision.
“I have no worries that he won’t make the right decision,” Izzo said. “If he’s here another year, we’re blessed. If he’s not here another year we were lucky (to have him for one).”
The 68.7 points allowed per game for Michigan State this season was the highest ever allowed for any Izzo-coached Spartan team, albeit only 0.1 points more than the 2005-06 squad that finished 22-12 after being ranked preseason No. 4 in the country. A large portion of that is contributed to the team’s lack of depth in the front court this season.
It all began when the team lost seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter before the season even began to knee injuries.That immediately forced Izzo’s hand, having to shuffle lineups and rotations seemingly every game. It meant heightened roles for both Miles Bridges and fellow freshman Nick Ward.
And it’d be safe to assume both handled the added workloads very well, particularly Ward. The Columbus-native went great lengths to get himself in playing shape and proved to be a lot of trouble for opposing teams this year. Anything he lacked in height (6-foot-8) he made up for with his size (240 pounds) and footwork in the paint.
And as the season progressed, the comfort level and confidence of Ward, as well as guards Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston, steadily rose. Langford overcame a minor hamstring injury early on and ended up leading the Spartans in three-point shooting at 41.6 percent, which was good for top 15 in the conference. Winston meanwhile finished tied atop the Big Ten with 5.2 assists per game, 182 on the season. That’s good for second all-time by an MSU freshman, 40 behind some guy named Magic Johnson.
Just how important were the MSU quartet of freshmen this season:
|% OF MSU SEASON TOTALS||61.7||52.5||51.8||52.5||39.5*|
Player/Team stats courtesy of ESPN | *Doesn’t include Ward, who made no 3PT attempts; team shot a combined 37.3 percent
Going back to the lack of depth in the front court, Michigan State saw their team total in rebounds per game get cut down by more than five whole boards from a year ago. A staple of Izzo-led MSU teams has been owning the glass. Unfortunately, he did not have that luxury of bigs to control the paint this season.
However, Izzo expects that to change dramatically come next season, regardless of if Bridges returns for his sophomore season or not. Gavin Schilling will return for a fifth season when he (presumably) receives a medical redshirt. Ben Carter hopes to have the same fate for what would be his sixth season, though he needs to effectively ‘sweet talk’ the NCAA to grant him eligibility. Both Carter and Schilling stand 6-foot-9.
But that’s not all. Michigan State has a pair of high-profile, top-20 power forwards coming in next season. Jaren Jackson (La Porte, IN | 6-foot-10, 225 pounds) is a 5-star prospect rated No. 3 in the state of Indiana and a top-25 overall talent nationally. They’re also welcoming in 4-star Grand Rapids Christian big man Xavier Tillman (6-foot-8, 270 pounds), who is listed as the top player in the state of Michigan, according to 247Sports.
So Izzo is going to go from having virtually no depth up front, to all sorts of big bodies at his disposal. And the Hall of Fame coach is already drooling at the potential for Michigan State in 2017-18.
“I’m ecstatic about next year,” Izzo said. “First of all, I’ve got two guys coming in that are going to help us. Second of all, everybody can kiss my, um, ear, as far as not having enough bigs next year because I’m gonna have bigs. I mean, there will be some paybacks on that.
“We’re not getting outrebounded again in my life, because that was a frustrating part for me this year. Eventually, size got us too.”