“New year, new me” is as applicable to you as it is to the Michigan State men’s basketball team. In the 2016-17 season, the Spartans began the year ranked at No. 12, eventually sliding to become a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ducking out in the first weekend with a loss to Kansas. Against its in-state rival, Michigan State defended home court against Michigan, and then got blown out by 29 the next week in Ann Arbor.
But in 2017-18, the fourth-ranked Spartans (4-1 Big Ten, 16-2 overall) are facing outsized expectations. Beating Michigan (3-2, 14-4) after last year’s defeat will only strengthen an already resolute claim. Featuring one of the most talented lineups in the country, Michigan State has it all to be a national title contender: size, speed and shooting.
The Spartans’ frontcourt — anchored by standout forwards Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. — leads the country in blocks. Guard Cassius Winston leads the Big Ten in assists. And star guard Miles Bridges, perhaps the most athletically gifted player in the nation, does just about everything on the court — he averages 16.5 points, 7.5 boards and 3.1 assists on a roster with no shortage of firepower.
Before this past week, Michigan State had won 14 consecutive games, taking the nation’s top ranking in the process.
But then the Spartans, who had averaged 104 points per game in the prior five-game stretch, suddenly went cold. First they lost to Ohio State on the road by 16. Then they nearly lost to perennial conference doormat Rutgers at home, eking out a 76-72 overtime win Wednesday night.
Bridges has struggled over the past two games. He has shot 10-of-29 from the field. As Bridges goes, so does Michigan State’s offense — which means this only adds to the notion that he is their most important player.
The Daily sat down with Bridges at Big Ten Media Day in October to talk about his surprising decision to forego the NBA draft, his expectations for himself and Michigan State this season and more.
The Michigan Daily: Your return was unexpected to just about everybody on the outside. What factors drove that decision?
Miles Bridges: I knew we had a good team coming back, we had a lot of returning players. I feel like I didn’t live out my college experience like I wanted to, so me coming back is about spending time with my teammates, and hopefully making it far in the tournament. My mom, she wanted me to go, but it was my decision and she supported me at the end of the day. That’s why I say Michigan State is brotherhood. They were gonna support me no matter what I did, if I left or if I stayed, and that’s why I love Michigan State.
TMD: If Michigan State doesn’t get to that stage of the tournament, is there any point of regret from that decision?
MB: I won’t have any regrets, everything happens for a reason. When it’s my time to go to the NBA, I’ll know it’s my time.
TMD: How different is life from only a year ago?
MB: I’m more comfortable. I’m more well-known now — the whole team is. Even with my team I have a lot of chemistry with them. And class is different, too, because even the teachers know me.
TMD: Given last season’s disappointing results, why do you think this team deserves a top-five ranking in the polls?
MB: We got a lot of returning pieces. We’ve got four starters, we have people that could have started last year returning from injury and we have great freshmen coming in. That’s why you come to Michigan State, to live out those expectations. Coach says we’ll play anybody. We play for that ‘Spartans’ on our chest.
TMD: Last year, you had guys like Carmelo Anthony and John Wall come to a Michigan State game. How does it feel to have those type of guys coming to watch you play?
MB: That’s two of my favorite players, so hopefully they can come to another game when we play better. It’s crazy. I used to talk to John Wall a little bit when I was getting recruited by Kentucky. He never told me to go to Kentucky, but he was just telling me how much he liked me as a player.
TMD: How different should we expect your game to look this year?
MB: I’m going to be a lot more versatile. If I have mismatch in the post, I’ll be able to post up. Mismatch outside, I’ll be able to use my guard skills. My conditioning is a lot better, I’ve slimmed down a lot. I’m down to 225 (pounds) now. I do a lot things better now. I rebound, I pass better, I shoot better. Going to the ‘3’ spot on the wing is a great transition for me.
TMD: Michigan State split the rivalry with Michigan last year, but the last loss was quite lopsided. Is there an added intensity to that game this year?
MB: We’re definitely gonna play with a chip on our shoulder. I wish we would’ve played them at their place again this year. We only have them at Breslin. It’s gonna be a great game between these teams.