For college basketball fans, the offseason is a lonely stretch. A time to reflect on the games of yesteryear and look ahead to what’s to come. It’s often more associated with gravy than meat and potatoes and can leave fans desperate for any news.
And nothing is associated more with the offseason than overreactions.
For months, the media and fans are left in the desert, searching for even a shred of news here or there. Accordingly, every decision, every update, and every good or bad break is blown massively out of proportion.
Over the last few years, I’ve started referring to this as the “offseason effect”. Every good or bad break is amplified by the 24-hour news cycle, often, giving fans an unrealistic perspective on players, teams, and conferences. Simply put, I’ve adopted a policy of being incredibly careful to avoid over or underrated offseason roster moves.
Which, leads me to today’s piece.
On Wednesday afternoon, news leaked that Michigan State’s freshman sensation, Miles Bridges, would be returning to school for his sophomore season. Bridges has yet to confirm the reports himself, but the writing appears to be on the wall. Barring an odd change of heart, Spartan fans can expect to see the lengthy wing back in the fall.
And, naturally, like any major college basketball news, the prognosticating began.
Within a few hours of The Vertical’s initial report, Michigan State went from a likely preseason top 25 team to a national championship contender. It was quite a jump for a team that went 20-15 overall last season and lost four of its final six games.
But, this time, those reactions aren’t out of line.
In fact, some of those opinions might even underrate his return.
-There’s Room To Grow From Last Season.
Let’s start with the basics. Michigan State was not a great team last season. The Spartans were certainly above average and, maybe, even a good team. But you can’t be considered a great team when you go 20-15 and only beat two (!!!) NCAA Tournament teams in the final two months of the season.
The advanced stats also largely reflect this evaluation. Michigan State finished at No. 40 overall in KenPom’s nationally ratings, which was good for the sixth best in the Big Ten. Even if one believes those numbers are too down on the Spartans, Michigan State still tied for fifth in the nation’s fourth best conference.
That’s not exactly elite.
However, as Spartan fans are well aware, there were reasons why the team finished with those marks. To start, Michigan State was exceptionally young. The Spartans finished at No. 323 in KenPom’s experience rating, starting five underclassmen and four freshmen to finish the season.
Even if those underclassmen were talented (all were top 100 prospects), youth will always come with its challenges. It was also likely one of the biggest reasons why Michigan State had a 2-7 record away from home in Big Ten regular season play. Not all of those losses came to great teams either, as the Spartans dropped conference games against Illinois, Ohio State, and Penn State on the road.
Additionally, Michigan State also had some tough injuries. Both Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling missed the entire season and players like Bridges and Harris missed some significant games for the Spartans. Add that on top of the youth and there are some legitimate reasons to explain away some of the team’s struggles.
Now, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I still think this group underachieved, even with these obstacles in mind. However, that was a retrospective, and not a prospective, piece. After all, underachieving one year doesn’t mean it will happen again.
And, for Michigan State, it probably won’t happen again.
-Michigan State’s Roster Looks Loaded.
With Bridges’ return, Michigan State now projects to return all five starters from last season. And that doesn’t even include Tum Tum Nairn (second) and Kenny Goins (eighth) who finished in the top eight for the team in minutes last season or Schilling, who missed last season with injury.
Frankly, outside of Eron Harris (22.9 mpg) and Alvin Ellis (19.4 mpg), Michigan State will be returning every significant contributor from an NCAA Tournament team. Oh, and half of them were freshmen last year too.
And that’s not all, either.
Michigan State is also welcoming an impressive 2017 recruiting class along with its roster returns. Although the class only has two commits, both are top 100 recruits, highlighted by five-star forward Jaren Jackson.
Between Jackson and Xavier Tillman (also a forward), Michigan State will finallyhave the frontcourt depth it so badly needed last season. With Carter and Schilling’s injuries, Michigan State had to find new faces to contribute upfront. That, however, won’t be the case heading into next season with these two freshmen.
-Miles Bridges Is The Difference.
Of course, admittedly, much of this would be the same, with or without Bridges. The team would still return the vast majority of its roster from last season and would still be adding a remarkable recruiting class. Simply put, the Spartans would have more than enough talent to compete in the Big Ten and nationally, even without Bridges.
However, Bridges is the piece that truly makes next year’s Spartans dangerous. It’s exceptionally hard to compete for Big Ten and national titles without a star player. For perspective, just look at last year’s Michigan team. The Wolverines were a middling unit before Derrick Walton emerged as an All-Big Ten candidate. Afterward, Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament and made the Sweet 16.
That difference can be overlooked, but it has a huge impact on wins and losses.
And with Bridges expected to return to East Lansing, the Spartans now have their star for next year’s team. The player who can take a group of young players and will them to wins when it matters most. Without him, Michigan State would be seen as a dangerous unit, but not one capable of winning it all.
And, as so eloquently stated by Michael Jordan, with Bridges back on the roster, the “ceiling is the roof” for next year’s Spartans.