Tulsa, Okla. — Matched up against each other for the majority of Sunday’s second-round game at BOK Center, Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges enjoyed the opportunity to play each other on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Kansas freshman Jackson had the upper hand over one of his good friends, scoring a game-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting in KU’s 90-70 win against Michigan State to advance to the Sweet 16. He added three rebounds and two blocks in 36 minutes.
Bridges led the Spartans with 22 points and eight rebounds on 7-of-15 shooting in 34 minutes. He briefly went to the locker room in the first half with a hip pointer.
The sight of Jackson and Bridges dominating in a game was nothing new to MSU coach Tom Izzo, who noted he saw it plenty while recruiting both of them.
“I give all the credit in the world to Josh. I thought he's improved his jump shot a lot,” Izzo said. “And he does play hard, but I look at the stats and I look at the game and I think about the injury and the time he missed, I'm really, really proud of Miles. And you know what, I'm proud of Josh.”
Jackson scored 14 points in the second half and put the finishing touches on KU’s victory with a right-handed slam down the lane in the final minutes for a 15-point lead.
Before facing Bridges and childhood friend Cassius Winston (seven points, eight assists), Jackson said Kansas coaches told him not to be too amped up when the game started.
“I came out and was still just a little too excited. I tried to force stuff a little bit,” Jackson said. “But as the game went on, I felt like the game started slowing down, it came to me a little bit more. And I just had to realize it was just another game, and it was about Kansas basketball versus Michigan State, and it wasn't about me versus Miles.”
In his first — and likely only — NCAA Tournament, Jackson is averaging 20 points and five rebounds on 17-of-28 shooting (61 percent).
Both Jackson and Bridges, potential lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft, played with and against each other since the sixth grade in AAU games. Jackson grew up in Detroit, Bridges in Flint, Mich.
“I knew it was going to be a fun game before it even started,” Jackson said. “So it was just really fun to be able to go out there and play against those guys and really proud to see them here and having success.”
Bridges, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, opened the game with a 3-pointer over Jackson and backed up some of his trash-talking with strong play in the post.
“It's always good playing against Josh,” Bridges said. “It gets a little physical at times. We compete every time we play against each other. He's a great player. He's going to have huge success in the league, so it's always good playing against him.”
For fans, it was an opportunity to see an NBA preview, where both players could have big roles for the next decade.
But Sunday, the main focus for each player was just trying to find a way to win and keep his season alive.
“Two great players going at it,” Izzo said. “The stats were somewhat the same, but I think Josh has really played well. He's really come on."
Tulsa, Okla. — Earlier this season, the Kansas basketball team had trouble with its interior defense against talented big men.
There were the standout games from Reid Travis, Jarrett Allen, Vlad Brodizansky, and a couple of other opponents in the first half of the year.
Heading into the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Michigan State on Sunday (4:15 p.m., CBS), the Jayhawks will attempt to slow down freshmen forwards Miles Bridges and Nick Ward.
Bridges, 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, is a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, averaging a team-best 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He’s scored at least 15 points in seven straight games.
“He's an unbelievable athlete, but he's got unbelievable feel,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Bridges. “I mean just making the extra pass or just knowing when to cut. And they play through him a lot. They play through him probably about as much as they play through well, I guess Denzel (Valentine) last year, but they put the ball in his hands a lot to make decisions.”
Kansas freshman Josh Jackson will likely draw the primary defensive assignment against Bridges, a good friend of his, which would match senior center Landen Lucas versus the 6-8, 250-pound Ward (13.9 points, 6.6 rebounds per game).
Of course, KU’s team defense will rely on more than one-on-one match-ups in the post. Guards are expected to do their part to help through help defense and ball pressure.
“I think the toughest part is you can tell guys what to do, but when you play against good guys that are hard to handle, the execution isn't always what you tell (them),” Self said. “It's hard to simulate athletic ability.”
Adding a wrinkle to the difficulty of preparing for Bridges and Ward is the one-day turnaround in the second game of the tournament’s weekend.
It goes both ways for all teams, but it doesn’t make it any easier to stop two of the top freshmen in the Big Ten.
“They run so many plays and got so many sets that one day of preparation, you really can't get a good feel for all the stuff they run or try to memorize a lot of their plays,” KU junior guard Devonte’ Graham said. “But we just had practice and we just went over the scouting report kind of in depth and we'll go back to the hotel and do the same thing. So it's just trying to get a good feel for a lot of the sets that they run.”
It’s not the typical Michigan State team that Tom Izzo has coached into the NCAA Tournament, featuring one of the youngest teams in the country that’s suffered a few injuries.
But the main philosophies remain the same heading into Sunday's second-round matchup against No. 1 seed Kansas (4:15 p.m., CBS). The Spartans (20-14) have out-rebounded their last 11 opponents and, like always, there’s some talented big men and reliable guards.
“One thing about youth, you win a game and there is an excitement, there’s an enthusiasm,” Izzo said. “There’s a new feeling. And that’s helped me even — you know, when you win a decent amount of games in this tournament like we have over the years, it’s just, I won’t say it’s ho-hum, but it gets to be.
“There was nothing ho-hum about yesterday for me or for them, and that’ll, I hope, propel us into playing well (Sunday) against a good team.”
The Spartans, who own a 13-1 record in the second round of the tournament under Izzo, are without seniors Eron Harris, Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling after all of them sustained knee injuries.
Interesting note: Under Tom Izzo, Michigan State owns a 21-4 record in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, including a 7-3 mark as the lower seeded team.
Series history: Michigan State leads 7-5. The Spartans have won three of the last four meetings, last coming in November 2015 at the Champions Classic.
Vegas says: Kansas by 8.
MICHIGAN STATE STARTERS
No. 11 — G Tum Tum Nairn Jr. | 5-10, 175, jr.
One of the fastest guards in the Big Ten, Nairn was scoreless in 18 minutes against Miami. He dished five assists with two turnovers and shot 0-for-2 from the floor.
Throughout the season, Nairn is averaging 3.6 points and 3.7 assists per game. He ranked second in the Big Ten with a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
He’s played in seven NCAA Tournament games, including starting five during Michigan State’s run to the Final Four in 2015. He leads all MSU players with 63 career starts.
His first name is Lourawls. Nicknamed “Tum Tum” after a character in the 1992 movie “3 Ninjas.” He moved from the Bahamas when he was 13.
QUOTE: “He has the ability to control tempo, and we’d like the tempo to be high,” Izzo said. “Tum brings that.”
No. 3 — G Alvin Ellis III | 6-4, 210, sr.
Started the last seven games after senior Eron Harris suffered a season-ending injury. In 30 minutes against Miami, Ellis had seven points and seven rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting. He missed all five of his attempts from behind the 3-point arc.
Averaging 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game. He’s shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line and he ranks second on the team in steals (21).
The Chicago native was a co-recipient of Michigan State’s Most Improved Player Award. He’s scored more points this season (223) than his first three years combined.
Ellis originally committed to Minnesota, but was let out of his letter of intent when former Minnesota coach Tubby Smith was fired.
QUOTE: “He’s not gentle with anybody,” Ellis said Izzo. “He’s always gonna get on you, but it’s all teaching and you just got to take in the spirit it’s given and learn from it. We know he’s trying to better us, better the team and put us in a position where we can win games or be successful in our own lives.”
No. 1 — G Joshua Langford | 6-5, 210, fr.
The McDonald’s All-American scored 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the first round against Miami, including 2-of-4 from deep. He added two rebounds and an assist in 24 minutes. The Spartans are 7-0 when he scores in double figures.
One of the most efficient 3-pointer shooters in the Big Ten, Langford averaged 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds throughout the season. He’s connected on 35 of 84 threes (41.7 percent).
He’s averaging 9.4 points in his last 10 games, which includes a career-high 17-point outing against Nebraska in February. He’s made at least one 3-pointer in seven straight games.
The Huntsville, Ala., native delivered sermon at his church on every third Sunday. He survived a bout with bacterial meningitis at 12 years old.
QUOTE: “It was everything I imagined it would be and then some,” said Langford of the NCAA Tournament. “Just a blessing to be able to be on this high-level stage and be a part of it.”
No. 22 — F Miles Bridges | 6-7, 230, fr.
In his tournament debut, Bridges was dominant with 18 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in a team-high 35 minutes. He shot 8-of-12 from the floor, and made 2 of 4 3-pointers.
The Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year is averaging 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, ranking seventh in the Big Ten in points and fifth in rebounding. His points per game average is the most by a MSU freshman since Magic Johnson.
The Flint, Mich., native leads the Spartans in made threes (54) as a 39 percent shooter from deep. He’s second on the team in blocks (43) and third in steals (18).
Draft Express has Bridges, a likely one-and-done prospect, going 12th in the upcoming NBA Draft. He features a team-best 42 inch vertical leap. Bridges missed seven games earlier this season with an ankle injury.
QUOTE: “Sometimes you need a jerk,” Izzo said. “That’s what I’m hoping Miles will turn into a little bit. That’s the area I’d like to see him grow and be a little more demanding of those things. Because once they get out on that court, we (the coaches) really are invisible.”
No. 44 — F Nick Ward | 6-8, 250, fr.
A lefty who’s drawn some comparisons to Zach Randolph, Ward scored a game-high 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting against Miami in the first round of the tournament. He added seven rebounds and a blocked shot in 26 minutes.
Ward earned an all-Big Ten honorable mention after 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He’s snagged 95 offensive boards and leads the team with 53 blocks. He’s scored in double figures in 24 of the team’s last 28 games.
According to hoop-math.com, Ward has converted on 73 percent of his shots around the rim. The freshman with a 7-3 wingspan is shooting 59 percent from the floor, which ranked third in the Big Ten.
His dad, Jeff, played at Tiffin University in Ohio and was the program’s all-time leader in points (2,532), rebounds (1,212) and blocks (226).
QUOTE: “He was pretty lazy at the beginning of the season,” associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said. “He still has his moments where he still takes plays off, but the biggest thing is he’s running the floor well. He’s posting hard. He’s playing with a little more energy and he’s been pretty good on the ball screens. That was one of the things he really needed to improve at, and I think he’s done that.”
MICHIGAN STATE BENCH
No. 20 — G Matt McQuaid | 6-4, 200, soph.
Off of the bench against Miami, McQuaid had seven points (2-of-4 shooting) with five rebounds, three assists and three turnovers in 25 minutes.
Known as one of the team’s top defenders and 3-point shooters, McQuaid is averaging 5.5 points and 1.9 rebounds on 34.5 percent shooting from deep. According to hoop-math.com, McQuaid takes a team-low 11.5 percent of his shots at the rim.
His sister, Andrea, played volleyball professionally in Europe. His dad, Rob, played basketball at Central Michigan and Midwestern State.
No. 5 — G Cassius Winston | 6-0, 185, fr.
Kansas coach Bill Self called him “one of the best passers in college basketball.” Against Miami, he had seven points and five assists without a turnover in 22 minutes. Miami coach Jim Larranaga compared him to Steve Nash.
Playing mostly off of the bench because of his defense, Winston was second in the Big Ten with 5.1 assists per game and his 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio was tied for fourth in the conference. His 174 assists in the season are second-most by a freshman, only trailing Magic Johnson.
A childhood friend of Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, Winston graduated magna cum laude from University of Detroit Jesuit and was accepted at Harvard.
No. 25 — F Kenny Goins | 6-6, 230, r-soph.
A former walk-on, Goins scored six points with two rebounds and two turnovers in 12 minutes against Miami in the first round.
Goins ranks third on the team with 4.6 rebounds per game and 21 blocks this season. He’s averaging 3.3. points on 57.5 percent shooting (46 of 80).
From Troy, Mich., Goins grew up a Michigan State fan and tailgated at football game since he was 6 years old. He attended the 2014 Rose Bowl during his senior year of high school.
No. 0 — G/F Kyle Ahrens | 6-5, 215, soph.
Played five minutes against Miami in the first round and didn’t record any statistics.
Ahrens is averaging 2.6 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game. He’s shooting 15 of 45 from the 3-point line (33 percent).
He’s only played double-digit minutes in two of the last 18 games.
Tulsa, Okla. — A few minutes after Michigan State put the final touches on a 78-58 victory over Miami in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, MSU coach Tom Izzo was asked about his thoughts of Kansas.
Izzo saw bits and pieces of KU’s first-round win over UC Davis, waiting for his team to take the court afterward.
“I only saw a little bit of them tonight, thank God,” Izzo said. “I saw the good part when they were only up four with eight minutes left and then they burned UC Davis. But they got a good team, veteran team. They got all those seniors, juniors and Josh (Jackson) is a heck of a player.”
During the regular season, Michigan State posted a 7-9 record against teams in the NCAA Tournament, which included non-conference losses to Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke.
Facing three teams that were ranked No. 1 at some point during the season, the Spartans should be comfortable preparing to play top competition.
“I think Kansas is a helluva team, and I think (Frank) Mason is an exceptional guard,” Izzo said. “I thought Josh is playing at a very high level. But we've played a lot of big teams all year. Maybe we can use this again, and yet, they're kind of playing in their own backyard. It's going to be fun.”
MSU guard Tum Tum Nairn added: “They are a really, really great team. They are a well-coached team. It is going to be a tough game and we look forward to it.”
The ninth-seeded Spartans (20-14) certainly have shown their youth and inexperience at times this season, plus they’ve dealt with season-ending injury to senior guard Eron Harris, a West Virginia transfer.
But most of those problems disappeared during their 20-point victory over Miami. Freshmen Nick Ward and Miles Bridges combined for 37 points and 16 rebounds.
“We get to work again,” Izzo said. “I told my guys all I want to do is work another night and get a chance to go against one of the top teams.”