The NCAA Tournament is a fickle beast. On Friday, you’re surprising even the most diehard of fans by beating #8 Miami by 20. On Sunday, you’re getting beat by #1 Kansas by the same margin.
Sadly, that’s how the Spartans’ season concluded this afternoon when, like so many other games this year, they simply didn’t have the horses to keep up with their opponents down the stretch.
What went wrong and what’s next?
1. Too Much Firepower
Despite the final score, Michigan State actually put up a pretty good fight late into the game. With 7:19 to go in the second half, MSU had cut the Jayhawk lead to five points and looked ready to make this a barn burner. Instead, the exact opposite happened.
It’s a similar refrain, but the Spartans lack of productive bench talent ended up burning them. Devonte Graham and Josh Jackson exploited match ups against the likes of Matt McQuaid and Alvin Ellis and put a chokehold on the game in the critical stretch. Graham finished with 18 points, including three three’s in the last five minutes, and Jackson had seven of his game-high 23 in the last six minutes.
Frank Mason also scored 20 points, giving the outstanding trio a cool 71 (read: one more than MSU’s entire team) for the game. This is nothing new. Michigan State’s perimeter defense was sketchy and prone to giving up big opponent runs all season and it came back to bite them. You can’t have those kind of lapses against a highly-talented team that does the vast majority of their damage from outside.
On the offensive end, Miles Bridges, Josh Langford and Nick Ward were once again the most productive Spartans (45 combined points). Ward was limited by foul trouble and KU’s Landon Lucas did a great job keeping him off the boards. KU was +8 in rebounding and did a better job of creating easier offense off second chances.
The guys gave it all they had, but at the end of the day this was a #9 vs #1 match up for a reason.
2. Appreciating Miles Bridges
In what may be his final game in Spartan green, freshman phenom Miles Bridges left everything he had all on the floor despite being visibly bothered by a hip injury he suffered early in the game. A lot of possibly-NBA-bound players would have called off the dogs and sat the rest of the way, but Bridges battled and ended up with 22 points and 8 rebounds.
It’s almost criminal to think about what Bridges’ numbers would look like playing on a more complete team. These Spartans didn’t have a consistent secondary perimeter option, any major size to help him on the glass or create spacing to open up lanes to the hoop. It’s not that there weren’t plans to solve all of those issues (actually there were three named Eron Harris, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter) but that’s just how things ended up.
Bridges was asked to do everything and he answered the call as best he could, which, if I may say so, was pretty damn impressive. If this was his last game, thanks for the memories, Miles (but there could be some MUCH better ones if you stick around for just one more dance).
3. Looking Ahead
It’s never easy to think about next year right after this year has concluded but there is a lot to get excited about heading into the future. Off the top of my head...
- Winston, Ward and Josh Langford give the Spartans as good a core as there is in the Big Ten. All three have a chance to be special, like, now.
- Incoming freshmen Xavier Tillman (6’9” 250) and McDonald’s All-American Jaren Jackson (6’10” 220) add premier front court depth. Jackson’s outside shooting could make him a Ward-level impact player right away.
- In addition to the new guys, relative old man Gavin Schilling will be healthy and bring a defensive presence down low that MSU did not have this year.
- A healthy off-season of development for McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens should help them take the next step towards consistency. Tum Tum can also continue his never-ending quest for a jump shot.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Tom Izzo will have (gasp) an actual guard and forward rotation. No more stretch-four Ahrens. No more Kenny Goins at center for long stretches. No more sub 6’7” lineups. It’s going to be a thing of beauty.
2016-17 is over and now our #BridgesWatch begins.