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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.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: Transferring players need ‘deterrent’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The NCAA is granting too many waivers allowing players who transfer to compete immediately, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Wednesday, calling the requirement that players sit out a year a useful “deterrent” to players switching schools.

Brey made his comments at a meeting of the Knight Commission, a nonprofit that pushes for reform in college sports. While the commission has not taken a position on transfer waivers, it often advocates for players being given more freedom to pursue their professional ambitions.

“As coaches we’re concerned about the number of waivers, to the point where the NCAA has given too much of a blueprint on how to get a waiver,” Brey said. “Kids feel they can go and, you know, bring up enough of a case to get eligible right away. So they’re more apt to want to go.”

In April 2018, the NCAA relaxed its waiver requirements, allowing a transferring player to suit up immediately if there are “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”

During the 2018-19 academic year, 79 men’s basketball players requested waivers and 44 were granted, a 56% success rate, according to NCAA data. Men’s basketball accounted for 33% of all waiver requests, the NCAA said.

Commission co-chairman Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, declined to comment on waivers but lauded the “transparency” of the NCAA’s transfer portal, in which players submit their names if they want to switch schools.

Brey said he believes players should be free to transfer and that it’s up to coaches to make their players want to stay, but he said sitting out a year can be beneficial and prevents players from transferring for immature or capricious reasons.

“It’s a bit of a deterrent for a kid. The year in residency saves kids from themselves sometimes,” Brey said. “I’ve seen some kids then come back, stick it out, and now they’re in the lineup and they come back five years later and go, ‘I was an idiot.’ Because every kid thinks about (transferring) when he’s not playing.”

ROADBLOCKS TO REFORM

Brey’s comments were one of a few examples from Wednesday’s meeting of the basketball establishment pushing back against reforms that would give players more autonomy or promote transparency about the way schools profit from college athletics.

The Knight Commission is pushing the NCAA to release to the public the financial details of contracts between athletic departments and shoe and apparel companies, a proposal that has not gained much traction. In the past, the commission has persuaded the NCAA to release graduation rates and other financial data, including compensation for coaches.

“The shoe companies, there has to be agreement across the board, that there has to be willingness and openness to share all those records. Candidly, I think more work needs to be done,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for Division I governance. “We don’t control all the third parties and their ability to cooperate with us. More conversation needs to continue to occur within the NCAA and between the NCAA and the third parties if we want to move the ball.”

Two NBA executives told the commission the league is in talks with the players’ union about lowering the NBA’s minimum age to 18, prompted largely by a recommendation by the Commission on College Basketball to rid the sport of the “one-and-done rule.”

But even that proposal is meeting some resistance in the NBA. David Krichavsky, the league’s senior vice president and head of youth basketball development, said some in the league would rather raise the age limit than lower it.

“Many teams and general managers would still be in favor of going to 20, given the additional scouting information you receive on players, seeing them compete at the NCAA level for two years after high school,” Krichavsky said, “but at the same time we recognize that the world has changed and will continue to change.”

COACHES BEHAVING BADLY

Brey, the president of the board of directors of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said he’d like to see coaches reach a consensus about how to police their own behavior.

An ongoing federal investigation into illicit payments made to players during the recruiting process led Louisville to fire longtime coach Rick Pitino, but some other coaches implicated in the probe have held onto their jobs. Brey said schools ought to move more aggressively to fire coaches for cause when they violate NCAA rules.

“We all have clauses in our contracts about NCAA rules and behavior, all of us. If those are violated, doesn’t that start on the campuses?” Brey said. “And no question the NABC could make a stronger stand. We have not maybe been as vocal about some of the things that have gone on.”

Report: NCAA will give more notices of allegations soon

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Now that the FBI’s college basketball corruption cases are complete, the NCAA will likely move forward with more notices of allegations.

Speaking to ESPN’s Heather Dinich on Wednesday at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, NCAA vice president of Division I Governance Kevin Lennon said that more investigations could come “in due time and I think  very quickly.”

The NCAA needed to wait for the FBI’s trials to finish up before launching its own investigations on schools mentioned over the past 18 months. We could see a high number of big-name programs get investigated during the NCAA’s process.

“You don’t get in the way of a federal investigation,” Lennon said Wednesday. “Activity was going on during that span that was within our purview, but now that the court cases are done, now we’re in a position where you’re likely to see notices of allegations going to institutions that have violated NCAA rules, etc. I think you can anticipate notices of allegations will be coming.”

Following the completion of the first FBI trial in October 2018, the NCAA already reportedly sent notice of allegations to Arizona, Kansas, NC State and Louisville. Other prominent programs, including but not limited to, Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma State and USC have also been mentioned during recent college basketball corruption trials.

While the NCAA will seek all documents that schools turned over to the federal government during legal procedures, the real difficulty in the NCAA’s investigations will be getting third-party participants to speak — or even cooperate in the first place. Those not tied to the NCAA through member schools have no legal obligation to help the NCAA during their investigation process.

Wednesday’s Knight Commission meeting also went over processes discussed or implemented because of the Rice Commission’s April 2018 report. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, president of the board of directors for the NABC, made waves by questioning where accountability comes from when it comes to coaching penalties.

Asking why “there’s been no hammer from the top of campus,” Brey asked why schools haven’t been accountable with coaches who break the rules.

“Why hasn’t an athletic director or a president acted in some of these current cases?” Brey said.

“I think a lot of our coaches want to know why hasn’t the hammer come down? I’m a little naïve to it. Is it legal stuff? A lot of lawyers? I think our profession would love to see the hammer be dropped on some of these situations. We need an explosion back.”

Brey has every right to question where penalties are coming from since only Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has lost his job among head coaches during this scandal. There seems to be a lot of confusion on where some things stand with the NCAA, and its rules, but maybe we’ll get more clarification now that the FBI trials are done.

Juwan Howard will be the next Michigan head coach

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Juwan Howard is heading back to school.

The former Fab Five member has accepted an offer to replace John Beilein as Michigan’s next head coach, according to multiple reports. He has spent the last six seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, where he played his final three seasons as a pro. The Wolverines ultimately picked Howard over Providence head coach Ed Cooley and Luke Yaklich, who was an assistant on Michigan’s staff the last two years.

Stadium is reporting that Howard has agreed to a five-year deal.

This will be the first time in 25 years that Howard has been back in the mix on a college campus, since he left Ann Arbor to become the No. 5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and that is what makes this decision a risk for the Wolverines.

Howard has never been an assistant coach at the college level. He hasn’t worked at the high school level. He hasn’t coached in the AAU ranks. There is not a strong track record for this kind of a hire. Of all the former NBA player that have ended up coaching a college team, Fred Hoiberg is really the only one that has had unquestionable and continued success. Kevin Ollie won a national title with UConn, but he not only was an assistant coach on Jim Calhoun’s staff for two years before getting the job, his title-winning team was a No. 7-seed that rode Shabazz Napier’s coattails to the title and he eventually got fired after driving UConn straight into the ground. Chris Mullin was a bust at St. John’s. The jury is still out on Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, but two years in he’s sitting with a 34-29 record and a 14-22 mark in the Big East.

Avery Johnson. Isiah Thomas. Clyde Drexler. Mike Dunleavy. Mark Price. Danny Manning. The list of NBA guys that have gone back to school and fizzled out is long.

Penny Hardaway — and, to a point, Jerry Stackhouse — are different. Penny worked his way up from the bottom. He started as a middle school coach and spent about a decade coaching in the high school and AAU ranks in Memphis before taking over the Tigers. Stackhouse coached an AAU program before taking over at Vanderbilt as well. They know the ins and outs of building relationships at that level. They had a keen understanding of what it means to be a head coach at the college level when they got hired, even if that understanding came from dealing with coaches recruiting their players.

Howard doesn’t have that.

And it doesn’t mean that he is going to be a flop.

When you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade campaigning for you, the kids you will be recruiting will take notice. When your candidacy brings Jalen Rose and Chris Webber together, there are going to be people in Ann Arbor that want to make this work. He spent two decades playing in the NBA. He was an assistant on Erik Spoelstra’s staff, a staff that has turned the Heat into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA ever since LeBron left. That same staff has also proven themselves capable of establishing a culture of hard work, toughness and player development.

Howard may not have a ton of experience on a college bench — or doing the things required to run a college program — but the coaching chops are there.

But there is no question that this is a major risk.

And while Warde Manuel’s decision to hire Ollie when he had the same job in Storrs did result in UConn winning their fourth national title, he also ended up bringing in the guy that had to be fired just four years after cutting down those nets.

Clemson forward Baehre tears knee ligament

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson forward Jonathan Baehre is out indefinitely after tearing a knee ligament.

The school says the injury occurred during practice Monday. There is no timetable for his return.

Baehre is a 6-foot-10 junior transfer from UNC Asheville who sat out last season. With four senior starters gone off this year’s team, Baehre was expected to play a major role for the Tigers.

Coach Brad Brownell says it’s an unfortunate injury for Baehre and the team. Brownell says Baehre had worked hard since joining the Tigers and he had no doubt Baehre would approach rehab strongly “and have a very productive career at Clemson.”

Baehre, from Germany, started 21 games for UNC Asheville in 2017-18 and averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game.

Sam Mitchell leaves Memphis coach Penny Hardaway’s staff

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis coach Penny Hardaway says former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell is no longer part of his staff.

Mitchell worked as an assistant coach for Memphis in 2018-19 during Hardaway’s debut season. Hardaway said Tuesday at a news conference that Mitchell has “decided to go in another direction.”

Hardaway added that “we definitely appreciate Sam so much and support him.” Hardaway said Mitchell will always be like an “older brother” to him.

Mitchell was an NBA head coach with the Toronto Raptors from 2004-09 and with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2015-16. He was named the NBA Coach of the Year in 2007.