EAST LANSING, Mich.– Michigan State heads to Indianapolis for the Champions Classic where they will face off with No. 1 Kansas Tuesday night. After a heartbreaking March for Spartan fans, the No. 10 Spartans come back with a deep, experienced and healthy team.
“I’m just so happy to be healthy,” junior Kyle Ahrens said after sitting out the 2017-18 season with a foot injury. “I’m ready to go. I’m excited to show it. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment. I’m finally healthy. I get adrenaline rushing through me at night when I think about when we play Kansas.”
Being injured for that long, Ahrens learned a lot off the court that he is excited to show on the court this year.
“I’ve learned a lot more off the court outside of basketball, being hurt,” Ahrens said. “There’s so much more to life than you realize and just being hurt, I was able to see from a coach’s point what it’s like and say from my viewpoint what it’s like. I’m just excited to get the opportunity to go out there and just be healthy this year.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo is happy to have an additional junior to come back and play, considering the loss of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the NBA draft this past year.
“Kyle Ahrens is finally healthy,” Izzo said. “That kid has gone through more injuries since his junior year of high school, never been on track. But this year he’s tied for the highest vertical with 40 inches on our team. He’s probably our toughest kid and he can hit open shots.”
The Spartans not only have recovered players coming back to the playing field this year, but also mentally and physically transformed players. The transformations began up front with junior forward Nick Ward.
“His whole demeanor changed,” Izzo said. “He’s lost another 15-18 pounds. He was under 240 this summer. He’s one kid that going through the draft process I think really helped. He started paying closer attention to his diet, what he eats. He’s shooting better. I’m actually excited about the new version of Nick Ward.”
In the offseason, Ward and Xavier Tillman worked tirelessly to perfect their bodies and get ready for an improved season. They used each other as pure motivation and healthy competition.
“I push him everyday to be the best Xavier possible and for me to be the best Nick possible,” Ward said. “Him pushing me on defense makes me a better offensive player and me pushing him on offense makes him a better defensive player. We build off each other.”
The two Spartans have worked endlessly on practicing a healthy diet and taking no days off. Izzo has been a big fan of their relationship and the positive results of their hard work on and off the court.
“Nobody on our whole team has made more progress than Xavier Tillman,” Izzo said. “He fits right in there with [Matt] McQuaid and Josh [Langford]. He’s a gym rat. One of the more tenacious workers. This kid could go down as one of the ‘poster boy’ examples of a ‘if you put your mind to something and it’s important enough.’ He’s a tenacious worker. I think he’s gonna be a great captain some day.”
Tillman started working on his body and game right after moving on from the Syracuse loss last March. He chose not to dwell on it and just move on.
“Me and Nick both worked on our dieting,” Tillman said. “We just worked our butts off. Literally taking no days off. We worked out everyday without taking a day off. Even when I went on vacation I found time to work out. Just staying away from the fried foods like chicken tenders and fries and stuff like that, helped my body transform.”
With a healthy body, Tillman hopes to make an impact on the court defensively and in terms of scoring too.
“[Regarding] body fat, I think last year I was around 17 (percent body fat),” Tillman said. “Now I’m down to like 11-12 percent. I’m faster. I jump higher. My conditioning is way better. I’m quicker. I can slide my feet a lot faster. So all those aspects of being athletic have changed.”
Heading into a tough start against Kansas, Michigan State’s team will be put to the test. Although they are injury free so far and optimistic, the Spartans must learn to take the punches that the schedule will throw at them. .
“[Playing Kansas first] makes sure that nobody counts us out,” Tillman said. “It’s a good challenge for us. Like the coaches were talking about, ‘that’s what we do here at Michigan State.’ We play the top teams. So everybody’s really excited just to play somebody other than ourselves.”