By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Twenty years ago, a young Arizona team with an indomitable star named Miles made an unimaginable run to the national championship.
The Wildcats weren’t seen as much of a factor heading into the 1997 NCAA Tournament because: A.) They had no seniors in the playing group and only one on the roster; B.) Although Miles Simon was a junior, he was also their only returning starter and he missed the first 11 games of the season due to academic issues; and C.) they were led by their youngest player, 18-year-old point guard Mike Bibby.
“I don't remember a team that came into a year with so many question marks that could get as far as what they’ve gotten (to) now,” Coach Lute Olson said at his Final Four press conference. “It’s been an interesting season for us, and an interesting run through the playoffs. I know a lot of people have sort of felt like we don’t belong here, but I think our guys do belong here.”
Instead of using inexperience as an excuse, Arizona made youth its ally. Said to be too young and dumb to know they weren’t supposed to beat No. 1 seeds in three consecutive games, that’s exactly what the Wildcats did in historic fashion against Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to win it all.
Just like Arizona did in ’97, Michigan State -- with its own irrepressible standout named Miles and a true freshman point guard -- will begin the ’17 NCAA Tournament as a 19-win team determined to prove that youth isn’t necessarily wasted on the young.
“We just want to show what we can do,” said Miles Bridges, named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference despite missing seven games due to injury earlier in the season. “I’ll be nervous for a little while, but once we do the jump-ball I’ll be good.”
Bridges, who leads the ninth-seeded Spartans in scoring and rebounding and is arguably the nation’s most dynamic dunker, and his fellow freshmen – Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford – have put on a show for much of the season, even if the final results haven’t always been positive.
However, after playing so many high-level games from Hawaii to The Bahamas, these Spartans should be well-practiced at being young players performing on the biggest stage when they open the tournament against Miami, the No. 8 seed from the Atlantic Coast Conference, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Friday night.
“We played a lot of big teams,” said Ward, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection and four-time conference Freshman of the Week. “We played Duke, we played Kentucky, we played Arizona. We played all those top teams so we know what to expect. I feel we’ll be ready for it.
“There’s always advantages to experience. But being young means we’re fresher towards things, and just being excited.”
Some accused Arizona of being too loose and carefree during its run, but Olson often credited his team’s youthful enthusiasm and uncommon toughness for the Wildcats’ rise.
The Spartans have demonstrated similar traits at times, just not on a consistent basis.
“I wish I could say I do (see those qualities),” said MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens. “Some of it is good. I don’t think they feel as much pressure, but at the same time I don’t know if they have that sense of urgency, either, and this time of year you’ve got to have a sense of urgency to move on.
“You have to understand that every possession has to matter and a couple of bad possessions, you’re going home.”
If Michigan State could stitch its best stretches from each game into a 40-minute tournament template, there’s no reason to believe it can’t play up to the level of the 1 seeds.
“When we’re locked in and focused on doing the things we’re supposed to do, we can play with anybody and I think we’ve shown that,” Stephens said. “We had a heckuva game against Duke, and then a three- or four-minute bad stretch cost us the game. We started out great against Arizona and had that four- or five-minute bad stretch that lost us the game.
“Against Baylor, we had that 10-point lead. So we played well against some of the best teams in the country; we just have to eliminate those loss-of-focus periods during games that cost us.”
After 33 games under mostly trying circumstances, Stephens and the coaching staff feel Bridges, Ward, Winston and Langford’s freshman season is over and they are well into their sophomore year.
“I think the guys have grown up,” Stephens said. “They’ve logged enough minutes and (lapses) shouldn’t happen when you’re a little older, a little more seasoned and understand every possession does matter.”
Going to the NCAA Tournament for first time can be a distraction for even the most tough-minded individual, but with the freshmen facing a new experience at every turn since arriving on campus, they are beyond being awestruck.
“The biggest thing with us is being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Langford said. “Everything’s been new for us with so many things coming toward us through the course of the season, but now it’s really not new because we know how to deal with different circumstances in so many different situations.”
Junior Tum Tum Nairn, who shares point-guard responsibilities with Winston, leads the Spartans with 92 tournament minutes, including 19 as a freshman against Duke in the 2015 Final Four, in six games. Next on MSU’s postseason experience list is senior wing Alvin Ellis III, who has 67 minutes in nine tournament games.
Sophomore shooting guard Matt McQuaid has played just 14 tourney minutes, all against Middle Tennessee State a year ago, while redshirt sophomore Kenny Goins, redshirt senior Matt Van Dyk and sophomore Kyle Ahrens have combined for about five minutes in three combined appearances.
With such a dearth of tournament experience, figuring out what to do in it will have to be a collaborative effort.
“We can’t let the bright lights or anything like that get us down,” said Winston. “We have to keep playing with energy and effort every day. This year, we’ve been through it all – new arenas, crowds, hype coming in – everything they can throw at us, we’ve been through it.
“So now we’re seasoned a little bit and we’re ready.”
Ward said the Spartans will lean heavily on head coach Tom Izzo “because he’s been there done that and has all the experience in the world. He’s been to Final Fours, national championships, Elite Eights, Sweet Sixteens – the whole shibazz – so we just have to trust him.”
But Izzo, who is making his Big Ten-record 20th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, pointed out that trust goes both ways.
“This is going to be a new experience for everybody,” he said. “It’s definitely been the most-challenging year just because of the different things that have happened throughout it. Each month kind of took on a new (complexion) so that was challenging and I guess frustrating at times.
“It’s been an evolution of things throughout the year and here we are. It’s just been different than any year I’ve even dreamed about here.”
Then Izzo echoed Olson, from 20 years ago.
“Now I’m hoping we can take it and go somewhere,” he said. “I don’t feel bad about getting (into the tournament); I think we’ve earned our right to get in.”