‘Punched and kicked,' men's hoops needs to regroup after controversial season
DETROIT — Nobody on MSU’s men’s basketball team has cancer. Nor is anyone facing starvation or homelessness.
After losing 55-53 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Syracuse March 18 at Little Caesars Arena, MSU’s season came to an unexpected end in the Midwest Region.
“I tried to tell the guys after the game, you know, nobody’s battling cancer, man,” senior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. said. “Everybody in here has food on the table, clothes on their backs, shoes on their feet. We have to keep that part of life in perspective. There’s people that don’t have those things. But it does hurt. You can’t downplay it. It does hurt. We came up short.”
Despite self-imposed expectations of bringing the program its third national championship, this marks the third straight season MSU (30-5) failed to make the Sweet 16.
“There’s been years where players owe me more than I owe them,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “This is one of those years that I owe them a lot more than they owe me. I’m not sure where I would’ve been without those players this year. I’m proud of them, I happy with them, I’m just disappointed for them.”
The return of sophomore wing Miles Bridges and the arrival of 6-foot-10 freshman Jaren Jackson — projected as lottery picks in the 2018 NBA draft — also led to high expectations from media and fans.
“I really just couldn’t believe that we lost,” Bridges said in the locker room on Sunday. “I thought that we had the best shot to win a national championship, and unfortunately we didn’t do that. It’s probably the saddest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Jackson and starting forward Nick Ward were benched late, as the Spartans were unable to beat Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s unique 2-3 zone. MSU’s offense was held 0-for-13 from the field the final 5:41, which allowed the Orange to go on a game-winning 7-0 run.
“There’s no hiding behind it,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “This was a championship-caliber team, and those were our goals. I think everybody in this locker room is, in just a little bit, disappointed we didn’t reach that.”
Izzo wanted basketball to be the rallying point for a school that lost its president for her handling of former doctor Larry Nassar’s longtime sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment as a university physician.
His team also accomplished a Big Ten regular-season championship amid controversial reports which alleged Izzo allowed a culture of sexual violence against women, and the abrupt retirement of former athletic director Mark Hollis.
Reports also alleged Bridges was involved with Christian Dawkins — a middleman of former NBA agent Andy Miller — who illegally paid players in a scandal that has uncovered the underside of the sport.
Rumors even surfaced Izzo, 63, a Hall of Fame coach who has been at MSU’s helm for 23 seasons, would retire. He assured reporters after the loss to Syracuse he wasn’t going anywhere.
“I get paid a lot of money to take a lot of crap,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good stuff, sometimes it’s real stuff, and sometimes factual stuff and sometimes it’s not factual stuff. But that’s the job I have.”
Izzo and teammates remained adamant the adversity of off-court distractions helped them persevere. But that team is now a part of the past. How the Spartans will be remembered is still to be determined by many.
“There were a lot of things that happened this year that were out of our control, but we stuck together as a family and that’s what basketball and Spartan nation are all about,” Nairn said.
The Spartans lose Nairn, fifth-year senior Gavin Schilling and graduate transfer Ben Carter to graduation and could also lose Jackson and Bridges to the NBA.
Izzo, however, will bring in five recruits next season, according to 247Sports: four-stars Marcus Bingham Jr., Foster Loyer and Gabe Brown and three-star recruits Aaron Henry and Thomas Kithier.
B0ingham, Loyer and Brown are ranked within the top-100 nationally — 57, 84 and 91, respectively —according to 24/7 Sports. Henry and Kithier are within the top-150 nationally, 138 and 144.
“I wouldn’t feel sorry for my roster,” Izzo said. “We have a lot coming in, we have a lot coming back. Sure, we’re going to miss a great player in Miles, probably, and if that happens, that happens. I’ve been fooled before, so I won’t say what will happen.”
Nairn’s MSU career ends after four seasons, but he might return to the program as a graduate assistant by next season, Izzo said.
Many players in the locker room said Nairn is the greatest leader the school has ever had, especially in terms of bringing players together to aim toward a collective goal.
“Mateen Cleaves, Magic Johnson, Draymond Green — I wasn’t here with Earvin, but it’s a pretty impressive statement,” Izzo said of Nairn’s leadership. “Especially when the coach probably agrees with him. He’s just a different guy, you know. I know this: I’ll go to war with Tum any day of the week.”
Schilling and Carter have said they’re going to pursue careers in professional basketball. Schilling was born in Germany and said he is fluent in German and French, which gives him the option to play in Europe. Carter, who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, said if he can’t immediately find a team in the NBA, he’ll test international waters.
Jackson is predicted to be the third overall pick in the NBA draft on June 21, according to Sports Illustrated.
He said, however, the loss to Syracuse is going to stay in his mind for a long time, and he hasn’t begun to consider his future prospects.
“Hasn’t even crossed my mind,” said Jackson, who averaged 10.9 points and 51.3 percent shooting from the field and started 34 games. “ (I’m) not thinking about it. I’m just focused on — when the buzzer sounded, I was just trying to process all of this stuff. I’m not really thinking about it.”
The team’s other departure — barring any transfers — could be Bridges. Bridges, a 6-foot-7 consensus NBA lottery pick from Flint, announced last April he had “unfinished business” and came back to MSU for a second season.
Like Jackson, Bridges said he hasn’t made a decision on his future. And like the end of last season, many aren’t predicting Bridges to return.
“He left his mark on this program,” Winston said of Bridges. “You know, for years to come, they’re going to remember Miles Bridges and what he did for this program. We came short this year. It’s one of those names when you think of Michigan State, you’re always going to think about Miles Bridges.”
With all the media reports, Izzo was confident Bridges helped him through the worst of it.
“Miles kind of taught me and said it best — He said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to go,’ and it’s his decision,” Izzo said, beginning to hold back tears. “It’s not anybody else’s decision. And it was his decision. And I think he’ll tell Jaren that. He’ll tell me that, or anybody else looking to leave or making tough decisions. Do what’s best for you, and that’s it. Because you have to be happy.
“I’ll bet you he never once — because I’ve asked him 100 times — he doesn’t regret his decision. It was because he made the decision that was best for him. And that’s what I learned to tell anyone else. I try and get the best information I can get. But as we’re learning, it’s about their decision. I was comfortable with his decision, because I thought he was leaving the whole time. He gave me an extra 10 or 11 months. I’m the lucky one. Not him.”
Not running away
When Bridges announced his return to East Lansing he coined the term, “It’s Not About Me, It’s About Us.” It quickly became the mantra for the Spartans. It was put on the back of the team’s warmup shirts to silently promote a conversation about social injustice.
After Nassar’s sentencings, those shirts were phased out with teal ribbons pinned to their chests to honor the survivors of sexual abuse.
Since the fallout of Nassar’s crimes — 10 charges of criminal sexual conduct and more than 260 women and girls alleging abuse — Izzo has said repeatedly he wants to be a part of the university’s healing process.
“If somebody would give me the chance to bring Michigan State back, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” he said. “I think it’s been punched and kicked. Some of them from mistakes that were rightfully so, and some of them, not rightfully so. But I’m going to sit down with some people and I’m going to be hopefully part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Izzo said he doesn’t want a dark period of the university define its reputation, but bringing it back will take time and dedication.
“It means bringing it back to the respect it has earned and deserved over the years,” Izzo said. “And not let something define us. That it happened. Things happen that are not right in a lot of places. But I’m going to make sure that I bring it back. That it has as much honor and prestige that this university can have. Because I think that’s what this university has deserved.”
Izzo, who has been at MSU since 1983, promised he’s not going anywhere until the Spartans are back.
“I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve never run from anything in my life, and I don’t plan on starting now,” Izzo said. “So, I’ll be here. I took too many bullets this year not to be here.”