COLUMN: Despite shortcomings, MSU basketball season was a success
Miles Bridges turned down the opportunity to earn more than a $1 million, or delayed it at least for another year earlier this month after announcing he was returning to MSU for his sophomore season.
The 6-foot-7 Bridges was projected by ESPN's Chad Ford as the No. 10 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and the No. 4 small forward in this year's class.
Other outlets had him slightly lower, like NBADraft.net, which had Bridges at No. 13 — the bottom line: Bridges could have been a lottery pick.
Instead, Bridges is pushing all his chips to the middle of the table and hoping his draft stock has nowhere to go but up. In doing so, he upped the ante for himself and the Spartans, in order to fulfill some "unfinished business."
In a season riddled with setbacks and injuries, head coach Tom Izzo learned to trust in a freshman class more often than not — something almost sacrilege for the Hall of Fame coach.
Amid the season-ending injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, Nick Ward evolved into one of the most overwhelming big men in the conference.
Additionally, Joshua Langford became the team's most dependable shooting guard after Eron Harris went down late in the season, and Cassius Winston has proven his ability to become a premier playmaker all while being a dangerous shooter.
So what gave with a surprising loss to Northeastern? Or a bludgeoning against Michigan? What about last-minute stunners to Illinois and Maryland?
It's because this team was complacent. And that's what happens when they have to lean on four freshmen for more than 20 minutes a game. It's what happens when this team and its coach enter "uncharted waters."
Reasons can be made all around the board. Without Harris and Schilling, MSU had reached the bottom of the bucket. Sophomore Matt McQuaid was hindered in the early parts of the season recovering from sports hernia surgery. Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. embraced his role as a defender on the floor and the clubhouse leader off the floor.
The ceiling only runs so high.
But with every loss, each Spartan grew stronger. When turnovers were high in early season losses, they got cut down the road. This team learned to play for each other. Izzo learned to inspire 40 minutes of purpose in a young class with nowhere to go but up.
MSU will presumably have Schilling and Carter back to dominate the five, along with incoming freshman Jaren Jackson Jr.
Ward can lock down the four, allowing Bridges to slide to three — the position he will likely play in the NBA.
Langford and Winston will be revitalized during the offseason and give Izzo impactful minutes all year, given their defensive play doesn't become a liability.
To further fuel the hype train, a bench laden with McQuaid, Nairn, Kenny Goins and newcomers like Xavier Tillman will have defining roles, putting MSU as early frontrunners as Big Ten champs and contenders for a National Championship.
But it all starts with Bridges as the team's centerpiece. It seems Izzo has built this team around Bridges to take the Spartans to the promised land. Izzo has been on record saying he likes Bridges as a leader, but wants him to be more assertive next season.
For a core of freshmen that had to grow up on the fly, as a nucleus they surpassed the expectations of many critics, even the ball-busting, back-breaking, in-your-face prospects of Izzo. Despite the shortcomings of injuries and setbacks, the Spartans found success in a freshman class that's only choice to to skyrocket.
For many, the 2017-18 season began almost immediately after their second-round loss to Kansas. Another solid class coming, combined with the supporting cast of Spartans on Izzo's roster already, will give Bridges a chance to tend to his "unfinished business."