Bridges, No. 2 Michigan St. ready for takeoff vs. North Florida
As soon as Miles Bridges decided to return for his sophomore season, Michigan State was guaranteed to be one of the main contenders for the national championship this season.
Bridges, a preseason All-American, passed up a chance to be a first-round draft pick in order to chase college basketball's biggest prize. That pursuit begins Friday, when the second-ranked Spartans open their regular season against North Florida at the Breslin Center.
The 6-foot-7 swingman provided plenty of highlight reel dunks while averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks during his freshman campaign. Coach Tom Izzo wants Bridges to head to the rim even more this season.
Bridges showed that dimension during three exhibition games.
"I like the way he's putting the ball on the floor," Izzo said. "I like when he takes it to the hole. He doesn't do it enough. He is more effective when he can drive it."
While Bridges is the star of the team, the Spartans have plenty of appealing options surrounding him. The team's second-leading scorer last season, sophomore forward Nick Ward (13.9 points, 6.5 rebounds), also returns. The Spartans have two experienced point guards in Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston, who averaged a combined 8.8 assists.
A loaded freshman class is headed by 6-11 big man Jaren Jackson Jr., touted by multiple publications as the Big Ten's preseason Newcomer of the Year.
Michigan State arguably has the country's most loaded roster, but Izzo isn't impressed by paper tigers.
"You don't win with rankings, you win with performance," he said.
Michigan State is anxious to get going. The opener figures to be a mere tuneup to a showdown with No. 1 ranked Duke in the Champions Classic on Tuesday in Chicago.
"They let us practice in the summer now, which is good, but it makes it long," Izzo said. "They started us two weeks earlier -- it feels like we've been practicing for 100 years already."
The Spartans had a 20-15 record last season and reached the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32 before falling to Kansas.
North Florida finished 15-19 last season, including an 8-6 mark in the Atlantic Sun. The Ospreys have lost a majority of their rotation players but do return last season's conference Freshman of the Year, forward Wajid Aminu (9.1 points, 5.6 rebounds).
Swingman Garrett Sams (10.4 points, 4.2 rebounds), another sophomore, is the top returning scorer. Among the newcomers is Ole Miss transfer and fellow sophomore guard J.T. Escobar.
The Ospreys do not have a player taller than 6 feet 8.
"We're athletic, we're long and we're different," coach Matthew Driscoll told the Florida Times-Union. "Because of that, we'll be able to offset (that)."
North Florida begins its season with a four-game road trip that includes stops at Michigan on Saturday, VCU on Monday and No. 8 Florida on Thursday. It's tough to see the Ospreys winning any of those games, though Driscoll won't concede anything.
"We're not going in to get a paycheck, eat a steak dinner, and go home," Driscoll said to the Times-Union.
Izzo's biggest concern is the Ospreys getting hot from the perimeter. North Florida shot 35.1 percent from long range last season, with Sams hitting at a 42.2 percent rate.
"Any time a team can shoot 3s it's concerning to me," he said. "That's how upsets happen."
Updated November 8, 2017