EAST LANSING, Mich. — With nine minutes left in the first half on Wednesday, Miles Bridges caught the ball in the short corner and went to work against Rutgers’ Mike Williams.
He backed Williams down several feet, then pivoted into the lane and put up a jump hook with his weaker right hand. It bounced off the back of the rim, and a follow-up tip shot hit off the front. When Rutgers secured the rebound, Bridges clenched his fists and yelled.
It was that kind of night for No. 4 Michigan State’s sophomore star. He tied his second-lowest scoring output of the season (11 points) despite playing 34 minutes in the Spartans’ first overtime game of the season, a 76-72. Not only did he struggle to hit shots, but he had a tough time even finding them. He finished the first half 0-for-3 shooting with no points.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Bridges said of his play early. “I would just say I was anxious to bounce back from the first half.”
Even that took a while to happen. Bridges, who tossed his signature headband aside at halftime, took two shots in the first 12 minutes of the second period and missed both before finally hitting a wild driving layup with 7:43 to go. That shot pushed Michigan State’s lead to 45-41 in a game where no points came easily.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wasn’t upset with the missed shots from Bridges. He didn’t like how few shots the sophomore had taken overall, even though he finished as the only Michigan State player with 10 or more field goal attempts.
“That’s one of my issues with Miles,” Izzo said. “I told him he’s got to be more selfish.”
Eventually Bridges became more assertive. He scored 8 points in the final 8 minutes of regulation and added 3 more in the overtime session. On the final play of the second half, he put his head down and drove, earning the foul call that would lead to his game-tying free throw. (“Next time I’m not gonna miss,” he said of the first attempt that bounced out.)
Each critic of Bridges has his own way of describing what he or she wants to see from the preseason national player of the year, whether it’s a “killer instinct” or the want to “take over” a game. Izzo had his own blunt way of putting it.
“I’m going to teach him how to be a little more of a jerk,” Izzo said. “I’m good at that. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give him something, and I’m going to make sure he gives me something.”
To do that, he might request the help of his big man, Nick Ward, who has four career technical fouls. Ward has the brashness that Izzo wants to see from Bridges at times. Ward said it’s not a matter of teaching that to his teammate, but rather bringing it out of him.
“You either have it or you don’t at this point,” Ward said. “He does have that, though. He does have that. Today was just one of his off days, but he does have that.”
It doesn’t seem to be in Bridges’ nature. When asked about Izzo’s comments, he initially didn’t even address the offensive side of the ball. Instead he criticized his defense and rebounding and said improving on those things would get him going.
In overtime, though, Bridges showed glimpses of what Izzo wants by demanding the ball because, as he put it, “I know I can make the right plays.” But while Rutgers’ Corey Sanders didn’t want anyone else to shoot down the stretch, Bridges kept his eyes peeled for the open man. His teammates trust him, so he trusts them, he said.
Bridges landed all the preseason accolades on a team with plenty of players worthy of them. Still, he’s more than willing to leave leadership responsibilities largely to senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn, and he loves to see his teammates fill the stat sheet as much as himself.
“With the type of team that I have, Nick could go for 30 a night,” Bridges said. “Josh [Langford] could go for 30. … I would rather have a national championship than a player of the year award.”
Nevertheless, Izzo plans to keep getting on Bridges, trying to bring the jerk out. After the game, he warned his star to be ready for Thursday. Thursday has come.
“I’m going to push Miles,” Izzo said. “I really am. I told him [Wednesday night], ‘Hang onto your hat tomorrow,’ because he’s such a good player.”