By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Miles Bridges’ decision to stay put just turned the elephant in Michigan State’s room into a woolly mammoth.
Midway through the Big Ten season, Spartan coach Tom Izzo decided it was time to address a situation everyone connected to the team had been tip-toeing around – MSU’s venerable string of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, which was in danger of being snapped because of four losses in the six previous games.
By acknowledging what he called “the white elephant in the room,” Izzo hoped to lessen the pressure attached to preserving the streak while ramping up the urgency to extend it.
What seemed to be a contradictory tactic worked like a charm. The inexperienced, undersized and undermanned Spartans won six of their next 10 games to secure a 20th straight tourney berth.
However, if they think scratching and clawing to just get into the tournament was hard, wait until they try to reach their newly stated goals.
Had Bridges announced Thursday that he was leaving for the NBA after wowing the nation during just one season, MSU’s formidable returning cast and new additions might have made the preseason Top-25, would have been picked to contend for the Big Ten title and been tabbed as one of the tougher postseason outs.
But Bridges’ decision to stay is a game-changer.
Bridges said he and the Spartans not only want to bring Izzo to his eighth Final Four, they won’t be satisfied unless they win Michigan State’s second national championship under him and the third in school history.
“It’s a big elephant now,” Izzo said. “I always say it’s really not that different because expectations here from our fans are always to go to Final Fours, but expectations from the coach are to win championships.
“For me, if it’s my room and I’m the only one in there with that elephant, it’s OK. But let’s face it. Now there will be a ton of expectations, and in a way deservingly so. But I can think of teams this year that were ranked one in the country – two or three of them – that didn’t get out of the first weekend. That’s the tough part of the tournament and the tough part of the season: the best teams and best-talented teams don’t always win.”
The re-energized Spartans came back from surviving a mentally and physically demanding gauntlet to taking their work-level to new heights over the past couple of weeks, Izzo said.
“It will be interesting to see if that continues now because this is a special group of kids,” he added. “It’s easy to say -- it’s a cliché, coaches always say it -- but I think where Miles and I have something in common right now is where I get to live my dream, this is what he’s dreamed about.
“When he walked out here he said, ‘Wow Coach, I can’t believe the people.’ That meant something to him.”
The first indication of just how high the stakes are going to be next season was the gathering of fans (approximately 1,000-1,500) who showed up in chilly weather at Bridges’ press conference held in the shadow of the “Sparty” statue just to hear if he was staying or leaving.
The crowd went crazy when Bridges, in so many words, said he wasn’t coming back to finish second.
Senior-to-be point guard and grizzled leader Tum Tum Nairn said Bridges’ investment in this team has been duly noted by his teammates.
“Miles gave up a lot, man,” said Nairn. “It’s all of our dreams to play in the NBA and he had that dream right in front of him. Actually, he could have lived it out and he is gonna live it out (someday). But we’ve got to all work harder and take it up a notch because we would have wanted to win a national championship regardless.
“That goal is never gonna change, so now, we’ve got to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that he’s getting better and that we’re getting better because like coach said, he really did give up a lot. It’s a big sacrifice.”
There was no question Michigan State played its best basketball last season down the stretch, peaking with a 78-58 domination of ACC upstart Miami in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans traded blows with No. 1 seed Kansas in the second game, but their lack of depth reared its ugly head as five-point deficit became a 20-point loss in the final 6:54.
Averaging nearly 19 points and eight rebounds in the last eight games, Bridges had reached an even higher gear since overcoming an early season foot injury.
“I can get better here, as well as in the NBA,” said Bridges. “But I’d rather stay here and get better. I have a lot to work on – my ball-handling, I want to shoot better, rebound better and just become a playmaker.
“Legacy means a big thing to me and by building a legacy, you’ve got to win. And with this group of guys I think we can really win.”
Ward, whose development was accelerated to warp speed by season-ending injuries to big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, lost weight to become an inside scoring presence teams had to respect. Michigan State was 17-9 when Ward scored 10 or more points, and his next big step will be to add muscle and become a defensive force on the other end of the floor.
With his health at full strength and confidence surging, Langford finally found the “old-man player” groove observers admire about his all-around game. Winston earned high marks for his effortless playmaking ability, which Izzo believes will reach new heights as his passion grows over time.
The Spartans desperately missed Schilling, who is among the nation’s best ball-screen defenders, but with him returning for a fifth season, foul trouble shouldn’t wreak havoc on Izzo’s all-but non-existent substitution rotation. Frontcourt depth will be bolstered by incoming freshmen Jaren Jackson, a 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American and 6-8, 270-pound Xavier Tillman four-star all-state power forward from Grand Rapids Christian High School. And if the NCAA grants Carter a sixth season of eligibility, Izzo will go from having his smallest team to fielding his biggest.
Then there’s the experience factor that veterans Nairn, Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins and Kyle Ahrens will bring to the table. McQuaid came on strong as an outside shooter and defender, Goins performed a thankless yeoman’s task of standing his ground inside while playing out of position and Ahrens showed signs of developing into a fearless perimeter scorer.
Bridges may prove to be the ultimate X-factor, not from the standpoint that what he’s capable of doing is still a mystery but with how he’ll be able to attack opponents from a myriad of positions. While he played most of his minutes as a power forward, his natural position is on the wing as a small forward or shooting guard. But listening to him, he might also want to take turns at the point.
“I just want to be versatile,” Bridges said. “I want to be able to play any position. I don’t really have one position I want to play, and that’s why I’m coming back – I want to work on all positions.”
“I’m like him,” Izzo said. “Right now I’ve got a lot of good players that probably get along as good or better as any team that I’ve had here, and I think I’ve had some very good teams and very good chemistry.
“Tum will be a senior and he’s been a great leader and I think you’re going to see incredible improvement out of a lot of guys who were injured last year, like Kenny and Matt…, and Kyle. And then, the freshmen. The biggest jump to make is between your freshman and sophomore year. I think you’re going to see Cassius take on a whole new personality. I think you’re going to see Josh (improve) and we’ve been beating on Nick to lose weight and now I’m going to beat on him to gain a little to get him back a little stronger. And then of course with Gavin and Ben, we’ve just got a lot of guys that get along.”
For much of last season, MSU’s youngsters didn’t know what they didn’t know. How many more wins knowing what they’re supposed to know translate into remains to be seen, but Izzo is optimistic.
“I look at what we’ve got coming back and I look at the opportunities we have,” he said. “As I told our players, their job now – (because) Miles gave up a lot – is to make sure he grows as a better player, better person, better student (and) we become a better team.”
According to Nairn, that can’t help but happen given the bond that exists between the players.
“Like I say all the time, the chemistry we had my freshman year was unbelievable and then my sophomore year it was unbelievable and I didn’t think it could get any better,” Nairn said. “And then this year, it was amazing. We got along so well and the freshmen had a lot to do with that. Coming in, we expected them to play such a big role and they handled it so well.
“Going into my senior year, I feel like is going to be the closest group we’ve ever had.”