Michigan State basketball: Spartans got taller after playing small last season
EAST LANSING -- Michigan State's seven big men stood side by side and lined up for photos.
Less than year ago, they could have done it one by one. Literally. Now, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward have some reinforcements as they embark on a season full of championship expectations.
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MSU ended the 2016-17 season with only Bridges and Ward at 6-foot-7 or taller. Bridges, at 6-7, had to play out of position at power forward, while Ward (6-8) and Kenny Goins (6-6 ) shifted to center. The Spartans even had to use former walk-on Matt Van Dyk (6-5) in a pinch behind Ward and Goins.
Some of the sights from Media Day. pic.twitter.com/ykHkhtflMv— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) October 11, 2017
That was in large part because of due to preseason knee injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, a pair of 6-9 forwards. Both missed the entire season, and the Spartans finished 20-15 en route to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We're healthy this year, so we're able to do more in practice, such as War (Drill) and a lot more physical drills," Bridges said. "(Izzo) is driving us harder. We have more bodies, and it's good for us. It's way more physical, a lot more running. That's something last year that took a toll on us. We weren't as physical and we weren't getting as many rebounds as we should have."
Carter, a grad transfer who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and Schilling are back. So are Bridges, Ward and Goins. The Spartans added freshmen Jaren Jackson Jr. (6-11) and Xavier Tillman (6-8), as well as sophomore Braden Burke (6-11), a Robert Morris transfer who is ineligible to play this season.
Izzo said Carter "is kind of a Draymond Green-intelligent guy" with his basketball IQ as a pick-and-pop power forward.
"I feel like my role will change," UNLV transfer Carter said. "I think in the beginning, it's something I can do whatever coaches need me to do in mentoring the young guys and help give a veteran presence to this team. ... As the year goes on and I start to get more confidence in my knee and in my ability in games and start to play and get my instincts back and my feel for the game back, I think I can help this team win games."
Schilling, who Izzo said could end up as his best ball-screen defender ever by the end of the season, is expected to be back to 100% health by the season-opener, which is Nov. 10 at home against North Florida.
What it also does is make the Spartans' competition for playing time more difficult, and that will challenge Izzo to work on a rotation after playing with a patchwork unit a year ago.
"Last year, we were held hostage to average play on the defensive end, sometimes inside, to foul trouble, to injuries. I don't see that happening this year," Izzo said. "Those weaknesses have turned into strengths. What we were lacking last year in depth, especially inside, I think now could be a strength of this team."
Izzo said junior swingman Kyle Ahrens recently returned to practice after missing "four or five weeks" with a stress fracture in his foot.
Ahrens said it started bothering him toward the end of summer workouts, and he believes he is about two weeks away from being back to full strength. He has been jogging, using treadmills and working on sideways movement to build muscles around his ankle.
"It is frustrating, but it's something I've gone through in high school," Ahrens said. "I know what to expect. I know that everything won't just come back like that."
Izzo said Ahrens (6-6) will play behind Bridges at small forward this season.
"He's had an incredible spring and summer," Izzo said of Ahrens, who averaged 2.6 points and 8.2 minutes a game last season. "He's one of the toughest kids on my team. He's played a bunch of positions. Gained weight to play the four when we didn't have anybody. Now he's lost some weight, back to being what I would consider a pretty big three and a backup to Miles. Can hit open shots. He got his athleticism back."
Like his fellow captain, senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn, Bridges was elected one of MSU's leaders as a sophomore.
"It's really overwhelming. I came from 10th grade, not even playing on the Huntington Prep (W.Va.) team to being captain at Michigan State, a top-five program. It's just overwhelming for me, and that's why I love my teammates."
This article is written by Chris Solari from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.