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The Most Talented Spartans Team of the Izzo Era Still Has Room to Grow

With two future lottery selections in tow, the squad’s upside is unquestionable. But Tom Izzo is used to being the underdog; will he make the necessary adjustments to make this team a Goliath?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Izzo has a type. In Draymond Green, we see what could be considered the prototypical Izzo player: an undersized big man with a chip on his shoulder who slipped to the second round of the NBA draft. Izzo has had only one top-10 pick (Jason Richardson) in over two decades in East Lansing. That’ll change soon. The Spartans will enter the 2018 NCAA tournament with two potential high-lotto selections — freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore Miles Bridges — on the same team. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Michigan State isn’t Duke or Kentucky. Jackson and Bridges will be gone next season, and there aren’t more elite prospects coming up behind them in the pipeline. For a coach known for doing more with less, this year’s NCAA tournament is a new challenge: What will Izzo do with the most talented team he’s ever had?

The stakes are high. Izzo may never never get a better chance to win a second championship. He is one of the best postseason coaches in college history, with one national title, seven Final Fours, nine Elite Eights, and 13 Sweet 16s on his résumé. However, a magic touch in March gets a coach only so far. His teams usually punch above their weight, but there comes a point where even Izzo needs top talent to advance. All six of his Final Four losses (Duke in 1999 and 2015, Arizona in 2001, UNC in 2005 and 2009, Butler in 2011) came to teams with multiple future NBA players and at least one lottery pick. The roles are reversed this season. He’s not David. He’s Goliath.

Coaching that much talent is a different type of challenge. When a team has players who can overwhelm their opponents with size and athleticism, its margin for error widens significantly. A coach can grow comfortable within those margins. Izzo didn’t put his best lineups on the floor this season, but his team still won almost every game. Michigan State’s near-perfect record (29–4) is a bit misleading. The holes on its roster only hurt it against other elite teams. The Spartans went 1–3 against the other three Big Ten teams (Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue) headed to the NCAA tournament. Those games weren’t even that close: They lost by an average of 12 points and squeaked out their only win by three.

Izzo is playing Bridges and Jackson out of position. They are too talented to play poorly regardless of how they are used, but neither is playing at the level necessary for Michigan State to run the table. The team would be better if Izzo shifted Bridges from the 3 to the 4 and Jackson from the 4 to the 5. According to the lineup numbers at hooplens.com, Jackson and Bridges have played only 148 possessions without one of three traditional big men (sophomore Nick Ward, senior Gavin Schilling, and freshman Xavier Tillman) next to them. None of the three space the floor, which removes driving lanes for Bridges and post-ups for Jackson.

Bridges hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations of NBA scouts this season. They want to see elite prospects take a step forward if they return to school; Bridges has stayed in place. He’s averaging the exact same number of points and free throw attempts per game as last season, while his rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage have all slipped. The underlying trend is a player spending too much time on the perimeter. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Bridges went from attempting 35.1 percent of his shots in the paint as a freshman to only 25.4 percent as a sophomore.

The problem isn’t that Bridges is shooting too many 3s. He’s taking only 0.4 more per game than last season, and he’s hitting them at a respectable 36.9 percent clip. The biggest change in his shot distribution came in the midrange: He went from taking 27 long 2s outside of 17 feet to 57 such shots. It’s not the best use of his physical gifts. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Bridges is incredibly explosive for a guy with the wide shoulders and thick frame of a linebacker. There’s nothing college defenders can do to stop him at the rim: He’s in the 87th percentile of players nationwide on shots in the paint.

There’s just too much congestion inside for Bridges to consistently attack the rim. He doesn’t have the ball-handling ability to maneuver through traffic. He can put it on the floor and make straight-line drives, but he’s not as comfortable changing speeds and weaving through multiple defenders. That wasn’t an issue last season because Michigan State was smaller. Bridges was a small-ball power forward next to three guards, and Ward was the only true big man in their rotation. Bridges was a mismatch nightmare who blew by bigger and slower defenders out on the perimeter. He’s not as scary when he’s shooting over smaller ones in the midrange.

Jackson is dealing with the same issues. He’s not being featured as much as the other lottery picks in this year’s draft; he’s averaging only 11.3 points a game on 52 percent shooting. It’s not a matter of ability. Jackson is in the 98th percentile of players nationwide on post-ups and the 66th percentile on pick-and-rolls. However, with a center camped out in the lane and three older perimeter players around him who need the ball, there aren’t enough touches to go around. He would be unguardable at the 5. He’s shooting 39.6 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game, and no NCAA center could contest his shot and keep him in front of them that far from the basket.

When Bridges and Jackson are at the 4 and 5, respectively, the opposing defense stretches so far it snaps. Michigan State has an eye-popping offensive rating of 1.24 points per possession in the limited number of minutes it’s gone small this season. Those lineups are less effective on defense, but the trade-off is worth it since the Spartans give up only 1.06 points per possession. Jackson is an elite shot blocker who can anchor a defense in the paint while scoring all over the floor on offense. Playing him at the 4 is not the best use of his skill set. Michigan State is missing the chance to dictate matchups: Jackson and Bridges could take a big frontline outside and punish small ones inside.

To be fair, Izzo had good reasons to not go small often in the regular season. A college coach is both head coach and general manager: He has to balance between the present and future when running his program. Ward and Tillman needed seasoning to prepare them for bigger roles next season when Bridges and Jackson will be in the NBA, and Ward may have transferred if he had been benched. Schilling, meanwhile, is one of only two seniors in the rotation. Upperclassmen play an important leadership role on college teams, but no one listens to guys who don’t play. All those factors go out the window in March. The margin for error is too thin.

Michigan State isn’t good enough to not maximize its stars. It doesn’t have any two-way players behind its starting backcourt of sophomores Cassius Winston and Josh Langford. Defenses leave senior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. (5-for-16 from 3 on the season) and junior Kenny Goins (4-for-15) open outside of the paint, while junior Matt McQuaid is a shooter without the athleticism to match up with elite perimeter players defensively. The Spartans’ best option to close games in March is to replace Ward with McQuaid and give him a less-threatening matchup on the perimeter. Izzo went to that lineup in the second half of their 75–64 loss to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

That loss also exposed the team’s Achilles’ heel: Jackson’s tendency to get into foul trouble. He picked up four fouls in the game and played only 24 minutes, and he was visibly frustrated with the referees. He’s such a polished player that it’s easy to forget he’s only 18 years old. Jackson, like most athletic young big men, tries to block everything. He bites on pump fakes rather than relies on length and proper positioning, and he gets cheap fouls on moving screens and over-the-back calls. He averages 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes of playing time. The downside of playing Jackson at the 5 is that it could expose him to more fouls, since he would be doing more wrestling in the paint.

What happened to Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament has to be keeping Izzo up at night. Kansas demolished Michigan State in the second round and looked like the best team in the field through their first three games. Bill Self built a great team around star freshman Josh Jackson, the no. 4 pick in last year’s draft. Unfortunately for Kansas, Jackson picked up two quick fouls in the opening minutes of their Elite Eight loss to Oregon, and he never got in much of a rhythm. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting and four fouls in the game. It’s hard to overcome an off night from one of your stars when you get that deep into the tournament.

Michigan State needs Bridges and Jackson to be the best versions of themselves to win a national championship. There isn’t a frontcourt duo in the country that can match up with them. They fit together perfectly. Jackson can protect Bridges on defense and open up the floor on offense, while Bridges can collapse the defense and create open shots for Jackson. There’s risk to playing them at the 4 and the 5, but the reward is too high to not pull the trigger. The right lineup adjustment can make all the difference. That’s what happened to Duke in 2015, when Mike Krzyzewski moved Justise Winslow from the 3 to the 4 and played four perimeter players around Jahlil Okafor.

All a college coach can do is put his players in the best position to succeed. So much of what happens in a one-and-done tournament is out of their control. It’s like playing poker: You have to tilt the odds in your favor as much as possible, because anything can happen in one hand. Even a great team can have an off shooting night and be sent home. Michigan State is a good team with a chance to be great. Izzo has been sitting on an ace card all season. If he doesn’t play it, he could regret it for the rest of his career. It only seems like he has a chance to win it all every year. He actually has the horses to do it this season. Now he needs to let them loose.