EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State has a lottery pick and All-American in Miles Bridges, but the Spartans might need their star less than any other elite team needs its star.
The Spartans can win when Bridges isn’t their best player, something not a lot of national championship contenders can say.
Tom Izzo’s team showed that again Thursday, getting out to a huge first-half lead and then running away late in the second half for an 81-63 victory over fellow top-five team Notre Dame.
Bridges seemed the healthiest he has been since suffering an ankle injury against Stony Brook and missing No. 3 Michigan State’s PK80-opening win over DePaul. He finished two alley-oops, including one from Cassius Winston early in the first half over teammate Nick Ward. He went for 14 points on 15 shots Thursday to go with four assists. A healthy and productive Bridges takes Michigan State to a level only Duke and perhaps Kansas can reach, but the Spartans (6-1) are fine either way.
Bridges is averaging 10.3 points in his three games since returning from injury -- a stretch that included Michigan State beating two top-15 teams, two teams that are undefeated against opponents not named Michigan State.
“We just have an all-around team," Bridges said. "I’m glad I don’t have to score 25 and 10. My teammates, they’re picking up the slack.”
Joshua Langford has been Michigan State’s best scorer two games in a row, scoring 23 points in Sunday's win over North Carolina and then going for 17 points Thursday. He single-handedly made things difficult for Notre Dame’s defense in the first half, going past his defender when the No. 5 Irish (6-1) played man-to-man and burying pull-up, midrange jumpers when they went zone and failed to close out defensively.
“They have a lot of different guys that can score the ball. We tried to help a little bit on the first possession," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "Winston hit a big one. Langford hit big ones all night. [Jaren] Jackson rattled in a 3 when we thought we were maybe coming back. They got a lot of different options. And they get 15-18 offensive rebounds. That puts a lot of pressure on your defense. They’re as good as anybody in the country.”
Michigan State’s point-guard play was the key heading into the season, and the combination of Winston and Tum Tum Nairn was terrific Thursday. Winston finished with 17 points and seven assists, while Nairn had five assists and one turnover in 14 minutes.
And then there’s the Spartans’ defense, which continues to be elite. It was dominant against North Carolina, and was the catalyst in Michigan State getting out to an early lead Thursday. Jackson made things difficult for Notre Dame’s leading scorer, Bonzie Colson, and the Spartans’ big-man depth controlled the glass.
“We’re not the same team as last year," Winston said. "We’re not just top-heavy. We’re a well-rounded team, we’ve got a lot of options, got a lot of players that can step up and contribute for this team, and that’s going to be big for us, because every night I’m not going to be able to hit five 3s, every night Miles is not going to be able to get you 20 points. If there’s always one person there to step up and be big for this team, it’s going to be huge.”
There's no debating Bridges is Michigan State's best player, and the Spartans are much better when he's healthy and on the floor. Izzo said after the game that simply having Bridges out there is enough to make defenses adjust and allow other players to get open shots that might not be there if Bridges is out. But they're not relying on the sophomore to carry the load and make play after play after play. That's not Bridges' game, anyway.
Can the other elite teams say the same? Duke obviously beat Michigan State without Marvin Bagley III, but the Blue Devils wouldn’t have won their past three games if Bagley was still out. He needed to score 30-plus and grab 15 boards to beat Texas and Florida at the PK80. Kansas is in a similar position. The Jayhawks would undoubtedly struggle if Devonte' Graham wasn’t at his best.
But Michigan State has shown -- in back-to-back wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame -- it can dominate when its best player is not its best player.
“I’m excited because I think Miles is really going to take some steps forward," Izzo said. "Keep those [other] guys playing the way they’ve been playing, and then we can turn into a great team.”
And considering what the Spartans have done in the past week, national-title aspirations are looking more and more realistic.