By Jamal Murphy
The 2017-18 college basketball season starts today, and with it the road to the NCAA Tournament, one of sports’ most exciting times. A handful of teams have their sights set even higher, toward a Final Four appearance, and then the ultimate achievement, a National Championship.
This season, the Michigan State Spartans, led by hall of fame coach Tom Izzo, have the most realistic shot at that ultimate goal. Since the Spartans’ National Championship in 2000, Izzo has found winning his second one elusive, though his seven career Final Four appearances are pretty nice consolation prizes.
This season could be Izzo’s best chance at that second title. But after speaking with him at Big Ten media day in New York City last month, it’s clear that Izzo is as focused on issues that affect his players off the court as he is with winning games on it. Though the two may go hand in hand.
On the court, Michigan State returns four starters from a team that won 20 games and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season (pedestrian by Izzo’s standards) and adds 6’11” McDonald’s All-American and projected one-and-done freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. to the mix. Miles Bridges, one of those four returning players, was himself a projected one-and-done. But he shocked the entire basketball world by delaying his NBA dreams for at least one more year to compete for a National Championship with the Spartans.
That decision makes Michigan State one of the favorites to cut down the nets in early April.
The 6’7″, 225-pound forward averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds as a freshman and was a projected lottery pick. But he decided to return to school because “we had a good team coming back, and I’ll have a chance to live out my expectations that I wrote down [last year],” he told me at media day. As for those expectations, Bridges stated the obvious: a National Championship is the “main goal.”
A focused sophomore (“old” for a star player in college nowadays), who could easily be in an NBA rotation right now, along with a strong and experienced supporting cast, with a hall-of-fame coach, to boot, is a scary proposition for the rest of Division I college basketball.
Bridges is even learning from his 2016 classmates who are now playing in the NBA. “I try to watch their emotions,” he said with a smile. “I’m really close friends with Josh Jackson, and he’s doing the same thing he did in high school that he’s doing in the league, crying for calls, all that type of stuff.”
Of course, there are naysayers when it comes to Bridges’ decision to forgo the draft, but Tom Izzo is not one of them. Typically, he defended his player’s decision to go against the grain.
“This kid has his own mind,” Izzo said, also at media day. “I think of all the things Miles said to me, [the biggest one was] he just felt like he wanted to be more ready to go. And that shows maturity way beyond mine, and hopefully it’ll pay dividends for him.”
Izzo went on: “So many [college players] feel like they have to leave [school]. Wanting to leave and having to leave are two different things. How many LeBrons are there? A couple? And I still wonder how many kids put their name in [the draft] last year and didn’t get drafted. How many put their name in, got drafted and got cut? What happens to those kids? We’re going to be fine. It’s them that are in trouble, and nobody cares about them.”
As for the argument that trial by fire is the best way to prepare for the NBA, Izzo begs to differ. “One guy said to me: ‘well you know in the D-League (the G-League, now), that guy got better last year.’ Says who? He got better playing in the G-League? What if he would’ve had 130 practices and 30 games instead of maybe five practices and 50 games? Maybe he would’ve been even better yet!”
While Izzo surely has an interest in defending Bridges’ decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season, it’s hard to argue with the point that many young players are pressured to make the jump to the professional ranks before they have developed the skills needed to succeed.
Izzo also addressed other pressing issues currently facing college basketball and sports in general.
On whether the recent FBI probe that resulted in indictments of four assistant college basketball coaches was a good thing for the sport and the players, Izzo responded: “Indictments? No, I wish I knew exactly what was going on there. I wish I knew how much the families were involved, kids were involved, coaches were involved. There’s gotta be a lot of things going on because those three-letter guys don’t get involved with everything.”
Izzo was more direct on the issue of social injustice and the resultant protests by athletes in the NFL and other sports.
“I talk to [the players] a lot about it,” he said. “If we don’t think there’s social injustice and equality issues, we’re putting our heads in the sand, because there are. “I’m not a fan of addressing things with the flag, but I don’t think anybody addressed them against the flag or against the military or against the police.”
Izzo continued, “I have a little more appreciation for it than some white guys, because my wife is Hispanic, her father’s been through a lot. So, we’re working on it everyday, what can we do to make things better? How can we do things better as a team, as an athletic department, as a university?”
“The only thing I don’t like hearing is when people act like there’s no problem, because there is,” Izzo concluded.
We should know soon whether Michigan State is as woke on the basketball court — they face fellow preseason top-5 program Duke on November 14 — as Izzo is relative to most coaches. If so, this should be a special season for Bridges, Izzo and the rest of the Spartans.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.