Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges took flight in his return to action from an ankle injury. Now the Spartans are poised to make a run in the Big Ten with their most dynamic weapon back in the lineup.
It took all of 16 seconds for Miles Bridges to make an impact.
The high-flying Michigan State freshman was grounded with an ankle injury for the Spartans’ previous seven games and entered Wednesday’s home matchup against Rutgers off the bench following the under-16 media timeout. Coach Tom Izzo set up a back-door play on the ensuing possession, and Bridges finished an alley-oop pass from Matt McQuaid with a thunderous slam.
“That lob is never open,” Bridges said after the Spartans trounced the Scarlet Knights, 93-65. “I don’t know why it was in this game, but for some reason it got open.”
It’s a good thing Izzo didn’t bury that play the way many planted Michigan State six feet under following a 7-5 start. Then again, home loss to Northeastern – with or without your best player – will do that.
But with Bridges back in the mix and his supporting cast having taken steps forward in his absence, Michigan State seems poised to compete in a wide-open Big Ten race. The gem of Izzo’s highly touted recruiting class is good enough to warrant such a bold assumption.
Bridges saw action in 3-to-4 minute stretches and wound up playing 17 on Wednesday, scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds. Four of those points came on highlight-reel alley-oop finishes that ignited the Spartans and the relatively quiet crowd, absent of the Izzone due to the school’s holiday break.
The second of those dunks, off a feed from fellow freshman Cassius Winston, made Bridges a trending nationwide topic on Twitter.
“I hate sitting out. That was probably one of the worst things I ever had to do in my life,” Bridges said. “But my teammates helped me back, so I feel like I’m back now. I’m favoring my foot a little bit, but once that gets behind me, I feel like I’ll be 110 percent. I feel great.”
In retrospect, Bridges missing time could end up being the best thing for this Michigan State team that seemed to rely too often on its star. He averaged 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds in over 30 minutes per game before getting hurt, and the Spartans often looked lost when Bridges wasn’t able to take over early.
But Michigan State went 6-1 without him as others were forced to step up. Freshman Nick Ward has been the biggest surprise, averaging 16.9 points and 8 rebounds over the last eight games, nearly six points and 2.5 rebounds more than when Bridges was starting.
Senior Alvin Ellis, who in his first three seasons never averaged more than 2.6 points, had 20 in a win over Minnesota and 16 in a victory over Northwestern in the two games preceding Wednesday. Michigan State’s four-game winning streak began when Winston took over the starting point guard role, and five-star freshman Josh Langford is beginning to find a consistent shooting touch.
Senior Eron Harris, a veteran Izzo is counting on for more offense, netted 24 points against Rutgers after scoring nine over his previous two games combined. Bridges’ return seemed to spark him.
“It may have had an effect on me that I didn’t even know it did,” Harris said. “It’s great to have an athlete like him on the court with you – a guy who knows the game like he does, a guy who can finish like that and get other people involved. Having someone so athletic on the defensive and offensive end is a great asset for our team.”
And Bridges is precisely why counting out Michigan State was premature. The Big Ten title is there for the taking with Indiana struggling to find consistency and Purdue showing flaws in a loss to Minnesota on Sunday. Wisconsin is on a roll, but the Spartans match up easily with the Badgers talent-wise.
Michigan State has put early losses to Arizona, Baylor, Kentucky and Duke – and more importantly, the debacle against Northeastern – behind it. It’s just a matter if the Spartans can break through the remaining obstacles.
Or if Bridges can leap right over them.