And Bridges has given the worst of these trolls, the ones who nitpick players’ weaknesses to back up their own preconceived notions, some reason to doubt him.
Bridges, a player who was considered a preseason national player of the year favorite, has not dominated as much as you’d hope for a young man who came back to school despite being a guaranteed NBA Draft lottery pick a year ago. He’s averaged a more-than-respectable 17.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, but he hasn’t been as aggressive as you’d hope for someone who is one of the most explosive athletes in the sport. Nearly half his shot attempts have been 3-pointers; he’s only taking a bit more than three free throws a game. Too often he has settled with jump shots instead of getting to the rim.
And that’s kind of what happened at the end of the game Saturday afternoon, if we’re being honest. With a tie game against third-ranked Purdue and with less than 10 seconds left on the clock, Bridges had the ball at the top of the key.
“I was really trying to go to the basket, but he gave me a little room,” Bridges said on his postgame interview on ESPN.
So he dribbled to his right and shot it.
And he made it to give the host Spartans a 68-65 victory vs. Purdue.
That 3-pointer brought him to 20 points on the game, and it gave fourth-ranked Michigan State (23-2, 11-2 Big Ten) its best win of the Big Ten season, and it proved to the trolls something that the rest of of the basketball universe has known for a long time:
Miles Bridges has got game.
Big-time game made for the biggest of moments.
“We wanted to get it in Miles’ hands,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said in that same postgame interview, “but not for the shot that he made.”
Sure, Bridges should have taken it to the rim. That’s what Izzo wanted. And the trolls will point out that this one play – the biggest play of Michigan State’s season to this point – and say it underscores the problem with Bridges’ game. Whatever. The point is this: Izzo had the confidence in his star player to make a play, and Bridges surveyed the landscape and made the right play.
Bridges is still a likely lottery pick after this season, but the different thing about this season is that he’s getting to live the college experience of being the best player on a team that has a real shot at a national championship.
I like Purdue a ton. I believe Purdue (23-3, 12-1) is the nation’s most complete team. But what Izzo did to the Boilermakers was a master’s stroke: He took away Purdue’s greatest strength, its 3-point shooting, and made 7-foot senior center Isaac Haas try to beat them. Haas was impressive in the post, scoring on jump hooks with both hands, netting 25 points – one off his career high – against a Michigan State team that steadfastly refused to double-team him. But those 25 points came on 22 shots, and each possession that Haas shot meant a possession when Purdue didn’t shoot a 3-pointer. Purdue shoots 42.7 percent from beyond the arc, tops in college basketball, but vs. Michigan State, the Boilermakers made only six 3-pointers in 19 attempts.
“We picked our poison,” Izzo said. “We said we’re not going to give up the threes.”
Michigan State fans should look at Saturday’s win and feel as confident as they have all season in this team’s ability to go all the way. Crucially, the Spartans only coughed the ball up six times all game. This team’s biggest issue has been turning the ball over. Michigan State ranks 254th in the country in turnover percentage. Nearly one in five Michigan State possessions ends in a turnover. The Spartans have three losses on the season, and each of those losses came by virtue of sloppiness on offense. In the loss to Duke, Michigan State had 17 turnovers. In the loss to Ohio State, the Spartans had 17 turnovers. In the loss to Michigan, they had 18 turnovers.
But in Michigan State’s biggest matchup in conference play, they found their best formula to be great: Take care of the ball. Play with toughness, most exemplified by senior tone-setter Gavin Schilling. Let sophomore point guard Cassius Winston be the guy to facilitate smart, efficient baskets — he had 10 assists and only three turnovers Saturday.
But when the chips are down, go to the guy who has the most game on your team, and among the best game in the country. On Saturday, Miles Bridges showed the big-time swagger that only a guy with big-time game can show.