EAST LANSING – Tom Izzo didn’t win a national title Wednesday. But he signed the players to do it.
Whether Izzo’s latest recruiting class will lead the Michigan State coach to an elusive second championship is now a matter of luck and health. Because it’s no longer a matter of talent, and it had been the last several times MSU reached the Final Four.
Think back to last spring when Izzo’s plucky squad got overwhelmed by Duke’s trifecta of NBA draft picks. Yes, MSU didn’t play well in the national semis, but even a perfect game wasn’t going to beat the Blue Devils at their best.
And Izzo knew it. Talked about it, too, with his staff, in meetings after the loss — strategy sessions designed to recalibrate the recruiting attack, to discuss how to close the deal on the top-shelf talent they’d been missing out on the last several seasons.
Heck, even Caleb Swanigan spurned MSU last spring at the last minute, though Swanigan is not the caliber of player of the other three.
In any case, there was talk, some of it loud chatter, about whether Izzo could sell his program to the kids ending up at Duke and Kansas and Kentucky.
“It gets to be a stigma,” Izzo said Wednesday.
All those Final Fours were great for the fans and for the coach’s legacy, but what truly sells programs to the elite prospects is a pipeline to the NBA. MSU had lost its connection for a while, until Draymond Green re-upped the link three years ago.
That the former Spartan All-American started for the NBA champs last summer and signed an $85-million contract with Golden State did more to re-establish the college-to-pros path in East Lansing than anyone since Magic Johnson.
It was critical.
Miles Bridges, the 6-7 wing who grew up in Flint but played for a prep high school in West Virginia, gives Izzo his first one-and-done possibility since Zack Randolph left MSU in 2001.
Bridges is the star of the four-player class, a top-10 talent whose athletic gifts equal Branden Dawson’s but whose skill far surpasses his. In fact, Izzo’s never signed a player like Bridges before.
“He’s an animal,” Izzo said. “I don’t know if I’ve had many guys with his athleticism, skill level and toughness. I mean, he is a monster on the boards. He just, he attacks the basket. So he’s kind of got all three things. And there hasn’t been many players like that.”
Izzo’s certainly recruited the sort of kids that will arrive with Bridges. Just never so many in one class.
Cassius Winston (U-D Jesuit, Detroit), Nick Ward (Lincoln High School, Gahanna, Ohio) and Joshua Langford (Madison Academy, Huntsville, Ala.) are all top-39 recruits who would make up one of Izzo’s better recruiting classes on their own.
But landing Bridges makes this his best ever.
As for the stigma of missing out on the one-and-done guys?
“I think that has been broken a little bit,” Izzo said.
If Bridges follows through on his potential and leaves after next year, the stigma will be shattered even more. After all, NBA contracts are more powerful recruiting tools than NCAA titles.
“No question,” said Mike Garland, MSU’s assistant who took the lead in pursuing Bridges.
Getting him, Garland admitted, brought some relief. He and the rest of the assistants had spent hundreds of nights on the road the last several years chasing after players who ultimately signed elsewhere. That forced them to reconsider their strategy, along with the continued losses to the big dogs in the Final Four.
So they went after Bridges even harder. Tag-teamed him on the recruiting trail, so that when Garland wasn’t around, DJ Stephens was. Instead of each coach taking one kid, they all took everyone. They spent more time with the players’ families, too.
Izzo thinks the approach worked. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
The class he just signed is ESPN’s No. 2, behind Duke’s, of course. Still, if the teams meet again in the future, MSU will have the pieces to compete.
It’s up to Izzo and his staff to figure out how to use them.
Up first for Spartans
Matchup: Michigan State vs. Florida Atlantic, season opener.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing.
TV/radio: ESPN3; WJR-AM (760).