NEW YORK– The BIG has built its reputation in men’s college basketball with coaches who are excellent teachers and have a history of developing good players into NBA prospects.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is a classic example.
Izzo has produced 25 players who have made an appearance in an NBA game during a 23-year Hall of Fame career that included seven BIG championships, 20 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, seven Final Four appearances and one national championship in 2000. Only two — guard Marcus Taylor and forward Deyonta Davis– have been one-and-dones.
Powerhouse forward Miles Bridges looked like he was headed down the same path.
The 6-7, 225-pound Bridges averaged 16.9 points, the most since Magic Johnson in 1978, and 8.3 rebounds, the most since Greg Kelser in 1976, in a statistically dominant season. He was an easy choice for BIG Freshman of the Year and was projected to go anywhere from 8 through 14 in the first round by NBA scouts who loved his size, athleticism and ability to shoot and handle from the perimeter.
But Bridges pulled one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season last spring when he stood up in front of the Sparty statue on campus and said he was coming back for his sophomore season.
“I’ve got some unfinished business here,” he said. “I want to stay.”
Bridges isn’t the first freshman lottery pick to pass on the draft. Big names like point guard Chris Paul of Wake Forest and forward Blake Griffin of Oklahoma also stayed in college. Paul lead Wake to its first ever No. 1 ranking as a sophomore before being selected by New Orleans with the fourth pick in the 2005 NBA draft. Griffin was the consensus national Player of the Year as a sophomore before being selected by the Los Angeles Clippers as the No. 1 pick overall in the 2009 draft.
But Bridges has a chance alter the landscape of this national championship picture.
He received the most votes on AP’s preseason All America team and has already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bridges, who grew up in Flint, Mich. wants his shot to continue the legacy of the Flintstones, stars like Mateen Cleeves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, who cut down the nets on Izzo’s 2000 national championship team.
Winning the Wooden Award is a goal, too as is being more prepared to play in the league on a regular basis.
The idea of having Bridges back on campus is still new for Izzo, who thought his freshman star was out the door at mid-season
“I thought it the whole time,” Izzo said at the BIG media day at the Garden. “I even joked about it, told him he was carrying the bags as a freshman and he’d be carrying the bags next year as a rookie, One day he came up asked me, ‘Coach why are you always trying to get rid of me?’ It made me realize this kid has a mind of his own.”
Izzo felt Bridges was ready. He also knew Bridges mother Cynthia wanted him to declare because she was worried about injury so he had him take a hard look at do more research before making a final decision. It was the first time Izzo actually tried to talk one of his freshmen out of playing for him.
He suggested Bridges speak with three former Michigan State stars- Magic Johnson, Draymond Green and Steve Smith– for some advice and well as his friends from summer travel ball who had turned pro early.
“Of course, nobody told him he should stay, but they did say, “Enjoy where you are because when you move to that level, it’s a job,”’ Izzo said. “I spoke with Magic and his thing was “He’s got his own decision to make like I did but don’t fear what everybody else fears like i did: If you come back you.are damaged goods. I could have been the 1 pick if I came out my freshman year. I was the first pick my second year and I was ready to go. One of the biggest things Miles said to me was he wanted to be more ready to go and that shows maturity way beyond mine.”
In the end, Bridges, who participates in a weekly bible study class with some of his teammates, did his own soul searching. He stood in front of the statue of Sparty on campus and announced he was coming back to college. He likes school, likes hanging out with his friends and wants to be better prepared to make the leap to the NBA. “I need to be more aggressive and work on not taking as many plays off,” he said.
The earth shook in Izzo’s office at the Bradley Center when the news came down.
Bridges is a force of nature. Michigan coach John Beilein has said scouting reports on Miles don’t include any weaknesses because he can shoot from the outside or create his own shot off the dribble. “That’s not a defense that is going to stop him,” Beilein said.
With Bridges, anything is possible for this young Big team that should be a Final Four contender again with the addition of 6-10 freshman shot blocker Jaron Jackson, a McDonald’s All American; 6-8 forward Xavier Tillman , the maturity of forward Nick Ward, who was the team’s second leading scorer as a freshman despite playing just 19.8 minutes a game, the stability created by the insertion of sophomore Cassius Winton at point and the improvement two wing shooters Josh Langford and Mike McQuade.
Eight of Michigan State’s top 10 players come back. But this is Bridges’ team.
“I’m telling you he’s the most different kid I’ve ever coached in a positive way,” Izzo said. “What will that mean? I don’t know. but I’ll tell u this. he’s a special guy. he’s extended whatever career I’ve had because he’s fun to be around and he keeps the sanity of this insane profession.”