LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Tom Izzo, as usual, is taking Michigan State to the NCAA Tournament.
The Hall of Fame coach extended his streak to 20 years of leading the Spartans to college basketball’s showcase event, relying on freshmen more than he ever has in his career.
Mile Bridges , Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford combine to score nearly 44 points in 92-plus minutes combined every game. They’re scoring and playing much more than Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert and Alan Anderson did during the 2001-02 season, the last time Izzo depended on multiple freshmen to play key roles for a team that lost several players from the previous year.
“It’s just been different than any year I’ve even dreamed about here,” Izzo said.
Izzo insisted he is confident in his team’s chances.
Ninth-seeded Michigan State (19-14) faces eighth-seeded Miami (21-11) on Friday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The winner likely will face Kansas, the top-seeded team in the Midwest Region, on Sunday.
“We’re good enough to lose any game we play right now,” Izzo said. “But we’re good enough to win ’em.”
Bridges agreed, saying the Spartans are going to be a dangerous team for any opponent.
“We’re good on offense and defense,” he said after practice Tuesday night. “We beat ourselves a lot. If everybody comes out focused, I really don’t think there’s a team that can beat us. It’s all on us.”
Izzo has won an NCAA Tournament-record 13 times as a lower-seeded team, but is 0-2 with a 10th-seeded team and 1-1 with a ninth-seeded team.
The 2000 national championship coach took a seventh-seeded team to the 2015 Final Four, his seventh trip to the national semifinals, and guided fifth-seeded teams to Final Four in 2005 and 2010. Each of those teams, though, had upperclassmen Izzo could lean on.
And Izzo knows he will lose his freshmen’s attention if he talks too much. Instead of putting his players through hours of film study, meetings and walkthroughs, Izzo plans to limit such sessions to 15 or 20 minutes to make the most of their limited attention spans this week. Instead of assuming they know what they need to work on and how they stack up against the competition, he spells it out bluntly more than ever.
“I think I’ve been even more honest with my team,” he said.
To avoid losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for the first time, Izzo will need his freshmen to play to their potential in the biggest game, or games, of their lives. He doesn’t really have a choice.
Senior guard Eron Harris is out for the season with a knee injury, along with his 10.4 points per game. Izzo’s six players with NCAA experience have scored a combined 18 points in the tourney.
Bridges, who may be a one-and-done player in college, has had to carry the team and he’s done a pretty good job of it. The Big Ten freshman of the year led the team with 16.7 points, the highest average for a Spartans freshman since Magic Johnson scored 17 per game during the 1977-78 season. Bridges also averaged 8.3 rebounds, the most by a Michigan State freshman since Greg Kelser in 1975-76.
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Ward is just as valuable because he’s the only healthy natural post player. He averages 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds, trailing only Bridges, and has been a pleasant surprise as a relatively unheralded prospect who was 30 pounds heavier last summer.
Winston averaged 5.1 assists, ranking second in the Big Ten, and only Johnson had more assists as a freshman at Michigan State.
Langford arrived with high hopes, but has not yet consistently provided a scoring boost. He has showed signs of breaking out and Izzo hopes it happens in the NCAA Tournament.
“Big weekend for him,” Izzo said. “It really is because we need him in multiple ways and I think he’ll deliver.”
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