Some upperclassmen sat patiently at their individual tables on the edge of the Breslin Center floor Thursday afternoon, waiting either for a reporter to talk to them or for the OK to leave.
As Michigan State media day wrapped up, the four freshmen garnered most of the attention, posing for photos while teammates looked on. They didn’t ask for this, but hype follows talent.
Just a few minutes earlier, one of the freshmen, Miles Bridges, had been asked whether the group had a nickname, self-given or adopted. He shook his head no. “We’re just Michigan State,” he answered.
Beyond the obvious show of humility, this also indicates an intention to fit in. Bridges, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Josh Langford might stand out on the court, but they don’t have to be attention-seekers off it.
When it comes to the former, they may have no choice. Injuries will keep senior big men Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling out for extended periods of time. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Carter’s injury appears more serious, but both have required surgery.
The newbies would have already been asked to make an impact. This just solidified the need for them to do so.
“I can see us starting four freshmen sooner or later,” Izzo said. “It could happen. That’s not the norm at 98 percent of schools, so it’s a little bit of new territory.”
The Bearer of Expectations
Three years ago in Tom Izzo’s office, he and his top assistant, Dwayne Stephens, were discussing then-high school sophomore Cassius Winston. Izzo tossed out the idea that Winston could be the best passer in Michigan since Magic Johnson.
“Two weeks or three weeks of practice has not changed my opinion of him one way or another,” Izzo says now.
Given that quote, it’s unclear whether Winston has heard it before from his coach. He doesn’t seem surprised by it, but he also acts reluctant to accept, understanding the magnitude of such praise.
“That’s a tall order right there,” the 6-foot point guard said. “I don’t think I should ever be mentioned with Magic Johnson or anything like that.”
Winston made sure to point out that Izzo had said he could be the best “since” Johnson, seemingly taking solace in the fact that he doesn’t have to be that good. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try to be.
He’ll worry about that later. For now, he’ll continue to focus on making an early impact, whether playing alongside or in place of junior Tum Tum Nairn. While the role may be ever-changing, he intends to make his presence felt.
“I want to go down as one of the great point guards to play in the program,” Winston said. “That’s my end goal. Right now, for this year, is winning games. That’s what we came here for. We want to get together, band together and win games.”
To do that, he can’t just focus on his own progress, especially not as the floor general. Step into practice, and you might see him barking out orders or shouting at a teammate who messed up.
“Everything we say,” he said, “we say it with love.”
The Unintended X-Factor
Nick Ward seems to be on the receiving end of most of the yelling.
Ward will have to play a big portion of the minutes at the five-spot with Carter and Schilling out for the foreseeable future. For someone so used to seeking contact, that means adapting to a game in which the emphasis will be put on calling post play tightly. Otherwise, he’ll be on the bench.
“We get on him if he’s making a lot of fouls,” redshirt freshman Conner George said. “We’ll say, ‘You’re gonna be out of the game. We’re not gonna be able to play you as much.’”
Izzo started bringing referees to practice to show his players how the game will be called. It’s not the first time, but he plans to do it more this season. Ward has probably been the biggest beneficiary of this move as he learns what he can do down low.
The 6-foot-9 big man has lost 23 pounds since arriving on campus as Izzo and his staff try to get Ward into “the best shape of his life.” That means no nighttime eating, no extra meals and smaller portions. Out with the excessive fried food and sour cream on his potatoes. Otherwise, his roommate will be in his ear.
“Nah, Nick, you can’t do that,” Winston will tell him. “You can’t eat that.”
Every bit of nagging and critiquing represents what this team thinks Ward can become, as well as what it needs him to be. Izzo once again compared him to former MSU star Zach Randolph on Thursday, calling him “a poor, poor, poor man’s Z-Bo.”
It seems like he adds one more “poor” to that phrase each time he brings it up. Ward is fine with it, though. He’s just happy to be mentioned in the same breath as an NBA All-Star.
“Who wouldn’t want to be compared to Z-Bo?” he asked. “It’s a dream. It was my dream ever since I was a child to be in the NBA, and I try to strive for that each time I step on the court.”
The Role Model
It would be easy for Miles Bridges to coast through college.
A 5-star prospect, he has left teammates in awe of his athleticism and versatility in practice. Any program would be ecstatic to have him. And yet Izzo refers to him as “a blue-collar superstar.”
Typically, Izzo suggested, blue-collar and superstar are mutually exclusive. If a player has enough talent, hard work might not seem necessary.
“It’s just stereotypes for top players, like they don’t like to be coached by people,” Bridges said. “And why wouldn’t I want to be coached by Coach Izzo? He’s not going to tell me anything wrong, so that’s why I listen to everything he says.”
Some of that likely comes from his upbringing in Flint, Mich. While the water crisis finally grabbed the nation’s attention, Flint has been among the most dangerous cities in the nation for many years, with some of the lowest-rated public schools around.
Bridges got out after his freshman year and transferred to Huntington (W.Va.), but he didn’t abandon his roots. He has spoken out about, and raised money in support of, those affected by the water crisis – and on an even bigger stage, he plans to keep speaking out.
“I, for sure, plan on using that,” he said. “And when I go further on, I’m still going to use that platform to talk about that type of stuff because it needs to be handled. … I’m going to be able to talk about that stuff, and people will actually listen because I’m a role model to some kids out there.”
His play will draw attention to his cause, and since he’s arrived on campus, Bridges has shown he can do even more than his coaches knew. Though typically put in isolation situations in prep school, he said he can play off the ball and come off screens as well. And despite his jaw-dropping vertical leap, he stays grounded.
“A lot of times, you see guys of his caliber, sometimes they’re not great teammates,” Langford said. “But Miles is a great teammate, and he loves seeing other players do great.”
The Man Who Plays Basketball
Don’t get it twisted.
“Basketball is something we do,” Josh Langford said Thursday. “It’s not who we are. It doesn’t define us as people.”
Many athletes, if they ever come to that realization, do so after their playing days are over. Langford realized it when he was 12, afflicted with bacterial meningitis, lying on his deathbed.
Contrary to what his doctor believed, he recovered to play basketball at a high level again. But he has not played it with the same perspective since.
“I realized that God is in control of everything,” Langford said, “and I also realized that basketball is a platform for me to uphold God’s kingdom. It’s something that me, Tum and Miles always say: We want to die empty.
“That means we want to fulfill our purpose before we leave this earth for God. We always say we’re in the business of changing lives. That’s what it’s about for us.”
His game, which Izzo said consists of being solid, steady and “a very intelligent player,” reflects his distinct confidence and assurance. He might be the best defender of all the freshmen.
As big as his on-court dreams are, he has huge aspirations off it as well. He wants to get out in the community and into schools, making changes in a world with which he’s not currently satisfied.
“I’m not going to get into all that because I’ve got to save it for later on,” Langford said with a coy smile. “Then y’all will see. I want to surprise y’all.”
Langford and his fellow freshmen arrive with huge expectations that seem to expand each day. They’ve also got the big personalities to match.
They don’t seem to look at themselves as freshmen. Freshmen don’t typically take on roles this extensive on an Izzo-coached team.
But this isn’t a typical team, and these players don’t intend to conform.