Miles Bridges got game after all, I guess.
With less than 10 seconds left and No. 4 Michigan State in need of someone to step up and make a play, Bridges did it. He came off a dribble-hand off, found himself isolated on the right wing against one of the Big Ten’s best defenders in Dakota Mathias and proceeded to bury a 24-footer with 2.7 seconds left to give Sparty a 68-65 win over No. 3 Purdue. Bridges finished with a team-high 20 points.
“I was really trying to go to the basket,” Bridges said on ESPN after the game, “but he gave me some room so I shot it.”
And with that, for the first time this season, Bridges is going to make headlines for all the right reasons. The 6-foot-7 sophomore entered this season with massive expectations because of the simple fact that he is a sophomore, and fair or not, when a player enters the season as the overwhelming favorite to win National Player of the Year and ends up an afterthought in the race for Big Ten Player of the Year, there are going to be questions asked.
Why hasn’t Miles Bridges gotten better?
Did he make a mistake in returning to school?
Was he overrated all along?
Why doesn’t he take over games?
The long answer to those questions is complicated and nuanced. I spent eight minutes on that very subject on a podcast last week. (See below.) The short answer, however, is this: Bridges is probably at his best when he’s playing as a complimentary piece, as a role player, and he’s done it better than you think.
His scoring is up from a year ago. He’s a better shooter than he was a year ago. His rebounding and shot-blocking numbers have come down, but that’s a by-product of playing on a team with the biggest front line in the sport this year instead of playing as a four. And now, after that shot, he’ll hopefully get some of the credit that he’s deserved.
That said, Bridges isn’t why Michigan State was able to beat Purdue on Saturday.
The secret is out on the Boilermakers. The way beat them is to allow Isaac Haas to go one-on-one on the block, hugging the myriad three-point shooters on Purdue’s perimeter, while eschewing double-teams at all costs. It’s not easy to do — Haas is a monster on the block — but it’s doable. Establish contact as early in the possession as possible, do your best to force him to post 10-12 feet and out and try to keep him from getting to his left shoulder. Do that, and Haas will get his numbers without the efficiency. He had 25 points on 22 shots, drawing just a single foul, against Michigan State.
Put another way, Haas isn’t going to beat you with twos, but game-planning to take him away by doubling would allow the Boilermakers a chance to beat you with threes.
No team in the country is better-suited to try and execute that game-plan than Michigan State. They have four guys on the roster — Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling, Xavier Tillman and Ben Carter — with the size and strength to hold their own in the paint against Haas, and they needed all four of them.
Hell, they needed everyone on their bench on Saturday. Ward played just 11 minutes. Jaren Jackson Jr. played just 12. Josh Langford only saw the floor for 19 minutes. That trio averaged 37.5 points. They scored 14 combined against Purdue.
In my mind, the hero of this game was Schilling, who was terrific down the stretch on Haas and grabbed a couple of critical offensive rebounds. Former walk-on Kenny Goins played 30 minutes and made a huge jumper down the stretch. Matt McQuaid hit three threes and scored more points than Langford. Bridges will get the plaudits, but this truly was a team effort, one that was won thanks to Michigan State’s unheralded bench guys and defensive execution.
But let’s really think about this.
The Spartans have had two major issues this season: turnovers and defensive rebounding. On Saturday, Purdue got just eight offensive rebounds and forced just six turnovers. They shot 6-for-19 from three as a team and had their two stars, Carsen Edwards and Vince Edwards, shoot a combined 8-for-26 from the field.
And Purdue lost on the road in arguably the toughest environment in the Big Ten on a 24-foot three at the end of the game. That happened four days after they lost at home off of an offensive rebound when they blew a 14-point lead.
Put another way, I’m not worried in the least about Purdue.