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The Enigma of Miles Bridges: Inside the ‘weirdo’s’ decision to return to Michigan State

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Tom Izzo knows just how fortunate he is that Miles Bridges was born in Michigan State’s backyard.

He knows all too well that it’s unusual for Michigan State to beat out programs like Kentucky for a recruit. He knows how fortuitous it is for his program that the future lottery pick they were able to beat Kentucky for just so happens to be a remnant of the past, a relic of a foregone era that values friendship and loyalty and the life lessons that he’ll learn by spending another year in East Lansing over getting rich quick.

Izzo knows all of that.

“You writers got fancy terms,” he said, chuckling, after he was told that his star pupil will be named the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. “My term: he’s a ******* weirdo.”

“I know this, one way or another, he’s an unbelievable kid,” Izzo added. “He’s a quiet kid. I don’t know if he’s a great interview, because he hates talking about himself. It’s one of his goals, but if you were sitting in front of him he would tell you about three teammates that were better than him.”

In fact, that is precisely what Bridges did. He told me that Josh Langford, who doubles as Bridges’ roommate and one of his best friends in the world, is “the best shooting guard in the nation”; that Cassius Winston was “one of the top guards”; that Kyle Ahrens is an incredible teammate that was happier Bridges was returning than anyone despite the fact that he and Bridges play the same position. When Bridges told his teammates that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season, they celebrated – Ahrens included – like they had just won a title despite the fact that Bridges’ presence on the roster cost everyone shots and many of them minutes.

That’s why Bridges loves Michigan State and the Spartan family. Everything about it. His coach, his teammates, his friends, his fans, his chance to be a kid. He also knows the history of the program. He’s friends with Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris. He talks to them regularly. He knows how they’re viewed in the annals of Breslin Center lore.

And he knows that none of them will ever be up to par with Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, the two Spartans that brought national titles back to East Lansing.

That’s the legacy he wants to leave.

“The only way I’m going to leave a stamp on the program is winning a national championship,” Bridges said. “The two guys that did it, Magic and Mateen, they’re never forgotten here. When we talk about winning, we talk about them two.”

That has been the goal since the first day he arrived on campus.

It’s why all the talk about his decision frustrates him.

“I never really had one and done in my mind. My whole focus was on wining a national championship,” Bridges said. “I never really made a decision to leave or to stay because staying was always in my head if we didn’t win the national championship.”


Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

Miles Bridges is not a trailblazer. It’s uncommon for a one-and-done lottery pick to return to school, but it’s hardly unheard of. Marcus Smart did it. Harrison Barnes did it. Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones III, Ivan Rabb. He isn’t even the only player to make that decision this year; Texas A&M’s Robert Williams skipped out on the chance to be a lottery pick as well.

What sets Bridges apart from the rest of that group is there is more inherent risk in his decision.

Part of it has to due with his athleticism. His explosiveness and his quickness for someone his size is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. He’s more than capable offensively, but being ‘more than capable offensively’ while having the springs to protect the rim and the versatility to play and defend multiple positions is why he’s a commodity. He was built to play in today’s NBA, but if – God forbid – he were to pop his Achilles’ or blow out his knee, the impact that losing a step or a few inches off his vertical would have is much greater than if it were to happen to, say, Jayson Tatum or Lonzo Ball.

He’s putting a lot of guaranteed money at risk by delaying the NBA for a year. Bridges has reportedly taken out an insurance policy to protect himself in case of a catastrophic injury – the maximum the NCAA allows for is $10 million – but for a guy who looks to have a 12-to-15 year career waiting for him, that may not be 10 percent of his career earnings.

Injury is not the only risk Bridges faces.

To be frank, returning to school has almost always proven not to work out for a player whose draft stock is measured in potential. An extra year on campus means an extra season to poke holes in his game. Instead of picturing a world where that player reaches his ceiling, scouts have 12 months to break down what he can’t do and where he has yet to improve. You’re far more likely to be Melo Trimble than you are Blake Griffin if you return to school.

This is what Izzo wanted Bridges to understand.

This is why he kept trying to convince Bridges to listen to what people in the business had to say. Declare for the draft. Test the waters. Talk to NBA teams. Educate yourself before you decide.

“I told him no over and over again,” Bridges said. After Michigan State’s season ended, a loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Izzo spent the better part of three weeks in Bridges’ ear. “It was probably after our third meeting, him asking me if I really wanted to stay. I just told him, ‘Coach, I don’t want to leave. I said, ‘I actually wrote down my goals and what I want to do at Michigan State and I’m not leaving until I accomplish those goals.'”

“And really, it’s the first time that I actually got mad at coach, and he realized it.”

The dynamic doesn’t make sense.

A Hall of Fame head coach trying to convince one of, if not the best player in college basketball that he shouldn’t play for him, that returning to school would be the wrong step to take.

Part of it is self-preservation. Izzo – and Bridges – know what the former’s reputation is at the college level. Michigan State is not Kentucky. It’s not Arizona or Duke or Kansas. That’s not the school to go to if you’re goal is to jump to the NBA as quickly as possible. Fair or not, that’s the way that the way that the Spartans are viewed.

“Our program isn’t going to force anyone out,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “Izzo gives families and kids and people that he’s close to the best information that’s available. Experts, college guys, former players. Get them the best unbiased opinions possible and let them make that choice.”

With Deyonta Davis, Michigan State lost a piece that could have changed the course of the 2016-17 season after he was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. With Gary Harris, it meant that the Spartans got a player back that put them in a position to make a run at the 2014 national title. Harris dropped to 19th in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he not only was the youngest sophomore to get selected – he didn’t turn 19 until November of his sophomore season, making him younger than many of the freshmen that were picked that year – that extra time on campus helped him mature and get ready to be a professional; is it a coincidence that Harris, who has earned just under $5 million in his three years in the NBA, is getting ready to sign an extension that could top $20 million annually?

“Where you get picked is your ego, not where you’re going to end up,” Izzo said, and he wanted to make sure that Bridges understood this point. The real money is made when you sign that second contract. “You’re better off being picked 7th and going to the right team than being picked first and going to the wrong one.”

“I did a three week study on him to say, ‘Are you sure?'” Izzo continued. “There’s no question in my mind, there’s no remorse. No seller’s or buyer’s remorse. He did what he wanted to do. He did it for the right reasons. It wasn’t just to win a national championship. It wasn’t just to be player of the year. To get to a Final Four. It wasn’t just to try and up his draft status. He enjoyed college, he wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to be a G League player, he wanted to be as prepared as he could be when they took him, and I feel so comfortable about that.”


(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

The other issue that Bridges is facing is that he will be changing positions this season.

This is a topic that isn’t going to be discussed much, but part of what made Bridges just so good last season is that he is the perfect small-ball four at the college level. He’s a perimeter player with perimeter skills offensively, but he played his freshman season at 240 pounds. Combined with his athleticism, he was built for playing in the paint defensively. It created mismatches everywhere on the floor, and instead of having to go up against a team’s best perimeter defender, he was being guarded by college four men.

It was perfect.

But it won’t be the way that it works this season.

Bridges is going to be playing the three for much of the year. There will be times where matchups or foul trouble or poor play dictates that Bridges ends up playing at the four, but Michigan State’s best lineup this season will feature Bridges at the three with Cassius Winston and Josh Langford in the back court while Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward man the paint.

Offensively, it should not be that big of an issue. Bridges is going to be getting the same shots that he got last season, only they’ll be coming from different spots on the floor. Instead of, say, shooting threes as a trailer in transition or as a floor-spacing four, he’ll be coming off of down-screens and getting isolations on the wing. Instead of being the screener in ball-screen actions, he’ll be handling the ball. He also had a knack for making tough, contested shots. They’re not worried about him offensively.

Nor are they worried about Bridges in transition. Running a wing will give him more opportunity to make a play in transition, while the added depth of Michigan State’s front court means that Izzo will unleash Bridges on the offensive glass. Expect to be wowed by his athleticism at least once a week this season.

The defensive end of the floor is a different story.

Bridges has never really defended on the perimeter before. There are different reads to make, different instincts to have, different muscles to use. Bridges is going to have to be quicker, less-inclined to use his size on smaller defenders, more willing to chase a shooter around a pin-down or over the top of a ball-screen than he has been in the past. He’ll be moving a lot more than he has in the past, which is why this offseason’s no-sugar and conditioning-heavy training regimen is so important. Bridges is now a streamlined 225 pounds.

“There will be some new adjustments. The fours in most of these programs, including ours, he didn’t post up very much, he was on the perimeter the whole time, so it’s not like it’s going to be a foreign subject,” Izzo said. “Miles has the athletic ability and the brains to do it.”

“It’s my job in practice. Better passer? Work on your passing. Better ball handler? Work on your ball handling. Better shooter? Work on your shot. Stronger guy? Work in the weight room. Better defender? He ain’t going to be working on his slides down in the gym in the summer. That’s going to be done with us [in practice], and I owe him to just pound the **** out of him and get him to be a better and better defender.”

“So I don’t see that as an issue at all.”


(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Looking back on it, people around the Michigan State program will tell you that it makes sense that Bridges opted against the one-and-done route.

Throughout the year, he would drop hints, making off-hand remarks about his sophomore season or skipping the draft that no one really took seriously. “It was subtle stuff,” Fife said. “We thought he was joking, that he didn’t want to talk about it.” The jokes, they believed, were his way of avoiding a conversation that he wasn’t ready to have.

Here’s an example Izzo gives: There is a tradition at Michigan State where the freshmen carry the bags for the upperclassmen. One day midway through the season, Izzo looks at his crop of blue-chippers, saying, “Boy, this is going to be nice next year. You guys aren’t going to have to be carrying bags, there will be some other freshman carrying your bag. Well Miles, you’ll probably be carrying bags in the NBA.”

Miles’ response?

“Why are you trying to get rid of me?”

Leaving was never a part of his plan. Listen to Bridges tell it, and he never even realized that he had a shot to be a one-and-done player until the first game of the season, when he put up 21 points on Arizona. I know, I’m incredulous as well, but Bridges is different. He’s not into worrying about himself. He also wasn’t considered a can’t-miss, one-and-done prospect until later in his high school career. He wasn’t a Golden Boy gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as an eighth-grader.

He still views himself that way.

When I told him he was being named the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year, he was polite. He was gracious. And, frankly, I don’t think he cared.

“National Championship. Big Ten championship. Big Ten outright.” Those are the three goals Bridges wrote down for this season. Those are the three things he wants to accomplish in his final season in East Lansing.

“I don’t have individual goals,” he said, “because I know that individual goals will come with team accomplishment.”

And there isn’t a better way to sum up the enigma that is Miles Bridges than that.

URI fights off La Salle for share of A-10 title

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jeff Dowtin scored 25 points, including four key free throws in the final seconds, as No. 18 Rhode Island clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title with a hard-fought 95-93 overtime victory at La Salle on Tuesday night.

Five Rams scored in double figures. Stanford Robinson had 20 points, Jared Terrell had 14, E.C. Matthews had 13 and Fatts Russell had 10.

La Salle was led by B.J. Johnson, who posted a career-high 23 rebounds to go with 29 points. Johnson a double-double in the first half with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Rams (22-4, 14-1 Atlantic 10) trailed 30-18 midway through the first half before going on a 14-0 run and taking a 39-37 halftime lead.

Rhode Island never trailed in the second half and led 81-78 with three seconds left. The Rams purposely fouled Pookie Powell, who made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Tony Washington snared the long rebound and made the putback to tie the game at 81 at the end of regulation.

Cyril Langevine scored four straight points to give the Rams a 91-87 lead with 2:20 left in OT. Trailing 91-90, La Salle had two chances to take its first lead since the first half, but couldn’t convert.

Dowtin hit two free throws to give La Salle a 3-point lead, and the Rams again intentionally fouled Powell, this time with 3.2 seconds left. Powell again made the first — and accidentally made the second. After Dowtin made two more, the Explorers tried the same tactic yet again but were called for a lane violation.

Saul Phiri added 16 points, and Miles Brookins scored 13 for La Salle (11-17, 5-10).

BIG PICTURE

Rhode Island: The Rams are looking for the first outright A-10 title in team history. In 1980-81, they finished tied for a share of the Eastern Eight regular season title. The 14 conference victories equal a team record.

La Salle: The Explorers are now 9-4 at home this season and have lost five straight to Rhode Island at Tom Gola Arena. Johnson’s previous career-high in rebounds was 16 against Miami in November of last year.

No. 21 West Virginia gets back to basics in win over Baylor

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West Virginia was not happy about the way things ended in Lawrence, so they took it out on the hottest team in the Big 12.

On Saturday, No. 21 West Virginia blew a double-digit, second-half lead in a loss to Kansas for the second time this season. Given the nature of Saturday’s loss, not only with regards to the blown lead but also the frustration that comes with attempting just two free throws, the question for the Mountaineers going into Tuesday’s game at Baylor was how would they respond.

As was the case with its 35-point beating of Texas in the first game after their home loss to Kansas, West Virginia offered up a positive response in Waco. Esa Ahmad and Jevon Carter led a balanced offensive effort and Sagaba Konate was dominant around the basket as the Mountaineers picked up the 71-60 victory.

West Virginia built its advantage in the first half, finding quality looks offensively (and making them at a solid clip) while limiting Baylor on the other end of the floor. But Baylor was able to mount a rally in the second half, with West Virginia’s offense being stagnant at times with passing on the perimeter ultimately yielding to a hopeful hoist in the final seconds of the shot clock.

That’s been an issue for the Mountaineers on multiple occasions this season, in wins and losses alike, with Carter being the team’s best option to make a play either for himself or his teammates. Even with Tuesday’s win, West Virginia showed that it still has work to to in this area as the season’s most important month draws closer.

The second half offensive issues aside, the conversation should be about what Sagaba Konate gives West Virginia in the post. Konate finished with ten points, ten rebounds and nine blocked shots, tying the single-game school record set by D’Or Fisher in 2004.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore entered Tuesday’s game ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game (3.15), and his block percentage of 16.2 ranks third nationally. While the perimeter players, most notably Carter, receive attention for their roles in “Press Virginia”, a big reason why they’re able to be so aggressive is the presence of Konate on the back line. Players big and small alike have looked to challenge Konate at the rim, and more often than not those attempts fail to the his combination of timing and sheer strength.

Baylor was able to pull closer in the second half due to West Virginia’s at times sluggish offense and its work on the offensive boards. For the game Baylor rebounded 38.6 percent of its missed shots, outscoring the Mountaineers 15-7 in second-chance points. But they shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 3-for-9 from three, with West Virginia putting forth one of its better efforts with regards to half-court defense in addition to forcing 14 Baylor turnovers.

Ultimately, while West Virginia’s bounce-back performance was a good one the result wasn’t so much about learning something new about the Mountaineers so much as them getting back to who they are. The offense was balanced if not spectacular, and defensively one of the nation’s best rim protectors produced a virtuoso performance.

That’s been the formula West Virginia’s called upon when successful, and they’ll have to continue to do that if they’re to make a run in March.

Bubble Banter: Losses by Texas A&M and Creighton put them in weird spots

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

N.C. STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 47, NBC seed: 10): The Wolfpack avoided adding a bad loss to their résumé by knocking off Boston College. At this point, N.C. State has done enough to get into the tournament. Not only do they have five Quadrant 1 wins, but in that group of wins includes: Duke, Clemson, at North Carolina and Arizona on a neutral. They can still mess this thing up by going on a losing streak at the wrong time, but I think that N.C. State is closer to safe than people realize.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 61, KenPom: 46, NBC seed: Out): It might be time to pay a little more attention to Mississippi State. After winning at Texas A&M on Tuesday, they now have three Quadrant 1 wins and a 6-8 record against the top two Quadrants with no bad losses. Here’s the problem: Their three best wins are Arkansas at home, Missouri at home, at Texas A&M, who may not end up being a tournament team. Throw in an atrocious non-conference SOS, and there is a reason they’re on the outside looking in. This is, however, a step in the right direction.

BUTLER (RPI: 34, KenPom: 20, NBC seed: 10): Butler did themselves a favor by picking up a Quadrant 2 win over Creighton at home. They now have a 3-8 record against Quadrant 1 with six Quadrant 2 wins. That loss to Georgetown at home doesn’t look pretty, but it shouldn’t be a killer so long as the committee takes into account that the Hoyas have been better late in the year. That’s a bad loss. It’s not a horrific loss. Their final two games of the regular season: at St. John’s and at Seton Hall. Win one and they should be fine, especially if they win their opener of the Big East tournament.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 56, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): Baylor did not help their cause on Tuesday, losing at home to West Virginia. That dropped them to 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big 12. Here are their final three games: at TCU, Oklahoma, at Kansas State. Those are all Quadrant 1 wins, and that’s before the Big 12 tournament. Baylor’s rallied a long way from the team that was barely in the mix for a bid three weeks ago. It’s not over yet, but they have quite a bit of work to do.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 27, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: 7): This team is all over the place. They’re now 17-11 on the season after losing at home to Mississippi State, and they’ve now lost three straight games since Duane Wilson went down for the season. But the first two of those losses were on the road against top 30 teams, eight of their 11 losses are Quadrant 1 and of their three Quadrant 2 losses, this was the only one where they were anywhere near full strength. But they’ve had so many suspensions and injuries and illnesses and players missing time that I don’t know what is what with this group. Two of their last three are on the road, and they are already 6-9 in the SEC. I think the Aggies are in more trouble than people might realize.

CREIGHTON (RPI: 37, KenPom: 26, NBC seed: 7): I’m including Creighton here because a Creighton fan asked me about them this week so I figured it was worth the discussion. As of today, I think that Creighton is safe. They’re 3-7 against Quadrant 1, they have six Quadrant 2 wins and no bad losses. But I also recognize that the end of their season schedule isn’t exactly easy. They host Villanova on Saturday, and the Wildcats are finally healthy and playing with a Big East title on the line. Creighton should be DePaul, but then they have to play at Marquette, the same Marquette who just beat them in Omaha. Lose two out of three, and suddenly they’re 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. That would put them at 5th or 6th in the league standings, most likely, which would mean they play a Quadrant 1 game in the first round of the Big East tournament. So the way I see it, Creighton is likely in with one more win this season. They’re definitely in with two.

YET TO PLAY

LSU
NEBRASKA

No. 2 Michigan State tops Illinois 81-61, seals share of title

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges scored 19 points, Joshua Langford had 16 and No. 2 Michigan State beat Illinois 81-61 on Tuesday night, sealing a share of the Big Ten championship.

The Spartans (27-3, 15-2 Big Ten) have won 11 straight and can claim the conference title outright if they win at Wisconsin on Sunday.

The Fighting Illini (13-16, 3-13) were coming off a win over Nebraska and looked like they were building momentum, competing well enough to trail the Spartans by just three points at halftime.

Michigan State, though, opened the second half with a 12-1 run to take control and went on to build 20-plus-point leads. The cushion allowed coach Tom Izzo to put his three seniors in and out of the game in the final minutes, giving each of them an opportunity to kiss the school’s logo at midcourt and get an ovation from the crowd.

Cassius Winston scored 12 points, Jaren Jackson had eight points and five blocks and Kenny Goins added a season-high nine points.

Illinois’ Leron Black had 20 points and Trent Frazier scored 14 on 4-of-13 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The young team has experienced of growing pains that may serve the program well next season, when it returns almost every player on the roster.

Michigan State: Despite clinching a share of the conference championship, the Spartans have a lot to play for with an outright title at stake against the Badgers and a chance to improve their seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

SENIOR START

Izzo started Tum Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter in place of Winston, Jackson and Nick Ward, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds in just 15 minutes.

UP NEXT

Illinois: Wraps up the regular season at home against Purdue on Thursday night and Sunday at Rutgers, where the Illini will have their last chance to win a road game this season.

Michigan State: At Wisconsin on Sunday.

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More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Jackson scores 18 as No. 16 Ohio State routs Rutgers 79-52

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — C.J. Jackson scored 18 points to help No. 16 Ohio State rout Rutgers 79-52 on Tuesday night.

Kaleb Wesson added 14, and Kam Williams, playing his last home game, had 13 as the Buckeyes (23-7, 14-3 Big Ten) got a feel-good win on senior night, coming on the heels of tough road losses to Penn State and Michigan that dropped them out of first place in the conference.

Corey Sanders had 12 points for the Scarlet Knights (13-17, 3-14). They’ve lost eight of their last nine games.

Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State’s best player who missed most of last season to a leg injury, continued to struggle with his shooting. After starting the month as the likely candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, he has had trouble scoring against more aggressive defenses. He had just six points against Rutgers on 3-for-11 shooting.

Bates-Diop has a year of eligibility remaining but likely will leave for the NBA. He graduated from Ohio State in December.

Jae’Sean Tate, also playing his last game at Value City Arena, had nine points and 10 rebounds.

Ohio State led 32-27 at the half. The Buckeyes had built a 19-point lead coming off an 11-0 run with 5:41 left in the half but then went cold. Rutgers put together a 16-2 run to finish the half, during which Ohio State went 1 for 8 from the floor.

But Rutgers, one of the nation’s worst offensive teams, opened the second half 1 for 8, and Ohio State took control with an 18-2 run.

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights took advantage of a period of cold shooting by Ohio State but just didn’t have the talent to keep it up in the second half.

Ohio State: Buckeyes did what was expected against a poor team after dropping two on the road. They will need some help to win the regular-season conference title, but they’ve been one of the college basketball’s best stories this season.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Finishes regular season Sunday at Illinois.

Ohio State: Finishes Friday at Indiana.

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More AP college basketball at http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.