With headlines across the country filled with scandal, Michigan State men’s basketball quietly kicked off its 2017-18 campaign Friday with its first day of practice. For a team that returns nearly all of its pieces from last season, this was a long awaited day.
“Exciting day around here for me,” coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s not only the first day of practice, but with our new facility getting within weeks of being finished… and with a good basketball team, it’s pretty exciting times.”
Izzo’s demeanor at his first press availability of the season was one of relief and eagerness. That could be due to his program avoiding the recruiting violation whirlwind that has struck some of the nation’s top programs, including Louisville, Arizona, Miami, Alabama and Auburn.
But Izzo’s excitement likely comes more from the hype surrounding his team’s chances at winning the 23rd-year coach’s second national title–and first since 2000.
“I think that nobody’s resting on their laurels,” he said. “I think a lot of guys had great summers.”
“We’ll see now as it gets turned up a little bit, and basketball season starts to come. More exposure for them, more interest for them. How do they handle that? I guess I won’t know until I find out, but I like our chances of handling it well.”
Early on, Izzo and the Spartans will have to handle the expectations that come with being a preseason top-5 team, likely where this group will fall when the first polls are released in the coming weeks. The Spartans return a majority of their production from last year’s 20-15 team that hung with No. 1 seed Kansas before bowing out in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
At the center of the green and white hype train is do-it-all sophomore Miles Bridges, who surprised just about everyone in announcing his return to Michigan State after being pegged as a one-and-done player all last season. After averaging 13.9 points per game and throwing down highlight dunk after highlight dunk, Bridges will be counted on all season to lead the Spartans on and off the court.
Izzo praised Bridges for being different from the typical blue-chip recruit, with eyes already set on making it to the NBA.
“When a guy doesn’t go pro that could go pro, is he going to bounce back now?” Izzo asked rhetorically about Bridges. “Or is he going to figure ‘I don’t have to go to class, I don’t have to do this, who cares about the academics, I’m already arrived, I could already have gone, so I’ve got to just maintain what I’ve got.’ Miles is about as far from that as there is in a person.”
Bridges will headline a revamped Spartan frontcourt, which should be one of the most formidable in the nation. That comes just one year after a severely undersized Spartan team had to use 6-foot-5 Kyle Ahrens and 6-foot-6 Kenny Goins in crucial big-man situations.
This season, the Spartans welcome one of the top recruits in the nation in 6-foot-11 power forward Jaren Jackson. A wiry, lanky body, Jackson also features a crisp jump shot, so he will likely stretch defenders outside of the paint.
That should create opportunities for the Spartans’ rising sophomore center, Nick Ward. Ward spent his summer losing even more weight after shedding tens of pounds during his freshman campaign. After his struggles with conditioning and staying out of foul trouble, Ward will look to play leaner and quicker this season.
The frontcourt will also be bolstered by the returns of two 6-foot-9 forwards who sat out last season due to injuries. Senior Gavin Schilling is “99.99 percent” according to Izzo, so he should play a role in a platoon with Ward at the center position. Graduate transfer Ben Carter will likely play backup to Jackson, and as Izzo claimed, he is “99 percent” healthy.
Izzo’s brief comments about NCAA scandal
Izzo said he was “sad” when he heard about the week’s breaking news of assistant coaches bribing recruits to commit to their schools.
“I’m disappointed because I don’t know if anything’s any good when it casts a black eye for your profession,” he said. “I’m not sure that I would ever hope that something that negative has to be done to clean [college basketball] up.”
Izzo, who is on the NCAA’s Guardians of the Game committee, did not comment much further on the news, saying, “when I do know more, I will answer the questions as honestly as I could answer them.”