College basketball: Can Michigan State end the Big Ten's national championship drought?
The air outside is getting colder, the days are ever so slightly getting shorter and you find yourself doing imaginery crossovers against invisible defenders in the office. You know what that means: basketball season is upon us. For both men's and women's basketball, we're previewing the Power 5 conferences, plus the Big East, American Athletic Conference and West Coast Conference.
Here is our Big Ten men's basketball preview, which looks ahead at a conference that's looking to end a 17-year (and counting) national championship drought.
Best player: Miles Bridges, Michigan State
It's not often that a player of Miles Bridges' caliber returns to school for his sophomore season, but luckily for college basketball fans, the versatile 6-7 guard/forward is suiting up again for the Green and White. He didn't do a little bit of everything as a freshman; he did a lot of everything. Bridges averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.0 3-pointers and 1.5 blocks per game, while shooting 55 percent on twos and almost 39 percent on threes. He is the Big Ten's leading returning scorer and the conference's third-leading returning rebounder.
Don't have time for the full 30 minute press conference video? Here are some highlights in 90 seconds: https://t.co/xnCnC2m2E1— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) April 14, 2017
The Flint, Mich., native showed his ability to play as a small-ball four last season due to his size and athleticism and with Michigan State's increased frontcourt depth this year, he'll provide coach Tom Izzo will tremendous lineup versatility.
It'll be no surprise if Bridges is a first team All-American or the national player of the year in 2018.
Best team: Michigan State
The Spartans had the best freshman class in the Big Ten last season and remarkably all four players return this season, as the aforementioned Bridges elected to spend another year in East Lansing for his sophomore campaign. Michigan State boasts an impressive blend of inside-out balance, experience, and talented youth on its roster. Forwards Ben Carter, a sixth-year graduate student, and Gavin Schilling, a redshirt senior, return to the court after missing all of last season due to injuries, while 6-11 freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will be among the most talented newcomers in the sport.
The Spartans' top four returning scorers were all part of the school's decorated 2016 recruiting class: Bridges (16.9 ppg), forward Nick Ward (13.9 ppg), guard Joshua Langford (6.9 ppg) and guard Cassius Winston (6.7 ppg).
Michigan State was the last Big Ten team to win the national championship (No, Maryland's 2002 title doesn't apply retroactively through conference realignment) and the Spartans are the conference's best hope to cut down the nets in San Antonio next April.
Sleeper team: Maryland
In the offseason, the Terrapins lost NBA-bound point guard Melo Trimble, who was the face, heart and soul of the Maryland program for the last three years, but they bring back a trio of sophomores that averaged a combined 30.1 points in their first season on campus. Sophomore Anthony Cowan (10.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.7 apg) will take over lead guard duties full-time for Maryland, while 6-7 guard Kevin Huerter (9.3 ppg, 37% from 3) and 6-7 forward Justin Jackson (10.5 ppg, 44% from 3) space the floor on the wing.
Maryland returns a pair of veterans in both its backcourt – Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens – and frontcourt – 6-9 forward Ivan Bender and 7-1 center Michal Cekovsky – not to mention the addition of Duke transfer Sean Obi, a 6-9 center who joins the Terrapins as a grad transfer.
Freshman Bruno Fernando, a 6-10 forward who played for Angola's men's national team during the 2016 Rio Olympics qualifying stages, should be an immediate contributor in some capacity.
Freshman to watch: Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
In case you hadn't picked up on it yet, this is a very Spartan-centric Big Ten preview, and for good reason. Pick a facet of college basketball basketball – e.g. player, coach, team, depth, etc. – and there's a good chance Michigan State has the best in the conference, and that includes best freshman.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (J3? J-Cubed? We'll come up with a good nickname later) should be one of the top freshmen in the country. At 6-11, he'll be able to play power forward or center for Michigan State. He can defend the rim on defense and stretch opposing defenses with his 3-point shooting on the offensive end of the floor.
The 2017 McDonald's All-American and Jordan Brand All-American will bring tremendous athleticism and versatility to the Spartans' frontcourt.