By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
TULSA, Okla. – For the Cliff Notes version of Michigan State’s basketball season, look no further than the Spartans’ second round contest against Kansas.
An injury forced freshman standout Miles Bridges to the sideline during the early stages of the competition. After Bridges’ return midway through the first half, MSU would battle valiantly to take a 25-23 lead. Although the Spartans trailed by five at halftime, they closed to within one point of the No. 1 seed with 12:14 remaining.
Unfortunately, foul trouble became an issue as it had so often throughout the 2016-17 season, and inexperience once again reared its ugly head, especially against an opponent blessed with a potent blend of seasoned veterans and exceptional young talent.
Then, after Coach Tom Izzo squeezed every last ounce of good basketball out of the Spartans he could, there was nothing left to prevent the Jayhawks – aided by a strategic, possibly game-saving, time-out after MSU drew to within a basket of retaking the lead -- from pulling away to a 90-70 victory Sunday evening.
The result will be added to the collection of this MSU team’s other high-profile near misses against Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke. The 20-15 Spartans will say goodbye to seniors Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis III and Matt Van Dyk, and the process for finding the key to playing consistently winning basketball will begin anew.
Except instead of looking to the next game, it will be with all eyes pointed toward the 2017-18 season.
The preseason knee injuries that sidelined senior big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter for the season, the pulled hamstring that slowed freshman wing Joshua Langford’s early development, the ankle ailment that caused Bridges to miss the last five non-conference and the first two Big Ten games and the knee injury that cost Harris the final eight games are now just unpleasant memories.
The relentless cram sessions to get Bridges, Langford and fellow first-year teammates Nick Ward and Cassius Winston ready to perform beyond their years are mercifully over. The game plans designed to get more out of less with a woefully undersized lineup will be put in storage, hopefully forever.
“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.”
For most of Izzo’s 22 years at the helm, Michigan State has been a program others aspire to be like. That’s not to suggest Izzo is above looking up to a team in the Spartans’ peer group, like Kansas, especially with a fledgling group of rookies wearing green and white.
“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.”
By the time MSU entered the postseason, much of the learning curve had finally been traveled and the Spartans were playing their best basketball of the year despite their shortcomings, according to forward Kenny Goins, who had five points and four rebounds against the Jayhawks and will be a redshirt junior next season.
“You look at teams around the nation and when you see some of them go through injuries, a lot of them just kind of fold and don’t have a successful year at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t say our year was successful, but the fact we were able to get to 20 wins and make it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with three seniors that got injured is pretty extraordinary. You don’t see something like that very often.
“You want a word for this team? Resilience. From here, it’s just back to the gym working toward next year.”
First there is some serious housekeeping to tend to.
Bridges, who had team-highs with 22 points and eight rebounds against the Jayhawks despite taking an elbow to his hip, must decide on whether to return for his sophomore season or declare for the NBA draft in June.
“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.”
Izzo said he will do everything he can to help the level-headed Bridges make an informed choice.
“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).”
With or without Bridges, Michigan State will return a formidable lineup with at least three players – Ward, Langford and Winston – with all-Big Ten potential.
“You can always find a positive and we’ve got a lot of pieces coming back next year,” said Winston. “A loss like this just makes you hungry so I know for sure that everyone’s going to be in the gym, everyone’s going to try to get better.”
Ward’s transformation from an overweight, 6-foot-8 raw prospect who figured to apprentice behind Schilling and Carter and could barely make a free throw, to an often dominating presence in the offensive low post, was nothing short of remarkable. Twenty-five pounds lighter than he was at the beginning of the season, Ward scored 13 points against the Jayhawks, had four rebounds and made both of his foul shots to improve to 61.6 percent from the line on the season.
“I’m feeling a little bit of everything right now, especially anger that we went out that way for the seniors,” Ward said. “I feel like we could have done more, but I felt like we left it all on the court. I want this pain to linger a little bit, but we can’t dwell on it too long because we have work to do.
“We just have to get back to this point next season and go even further.”
Kansas outrebounded Michigan State 36-28, an all-too common disparity this season that rankles Izzo to his core because his program is built on a foundation of rebounding and defense.
With the 6-9, 240-pound Schilling set to return as a healthy fifth-year senior and heralded recruits Jaren Jackson (6-11, 220) and Xavier Tillman (6-8, 270) comprising next season freshman class, MSU’s front line will look dramatically taller. And, it will be even deeper if the 6-9, 225-pound Carter’s petition for a sixth season of eligibility is granted by the NCAA.
“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.”