Tate: Bridges not burned at MSU

Tate: Bridges not burned at MSU

There's that word again: culture! It's there or it isn't.

Who but Tom Izzo and the respected 41-year continuity of the Jud Heathcote-Izzo regime could have influenced upcoming sophomore Miles Bridges to delay his millionaire status?

Bridges' decision projects a lopsided 2018 Big Ten basketball race and turns Michigan State into a top-5 team with NCAA title potential.

Why is Bridges remaining in college while the nation's other top dozen freshmen are apparently turning pro ... while even his mother wanted him to go?

Importantly, he's a "Flintstone" carrying the tradition of super-athletes from Flint — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Antonio Smith, Charlie Bell — who exploded on campus in the late 1990s.

Four decades of an unbroken coaching line have given MSU a network of committed Spartans who trace back to Magic Johnson and beyond.

Most competing programs find their lineage shattered by unconnected coaching changes. Illinois is one of those, Brad Underwood arriving as the sixth UI basketball coach in 22 years.

Bridges, who turned 19 last month, will move from power forward to the wing as a tune-up for his NBA position. And he'll be joined up front by 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American Jaren Jackson Jr., who, along with Nick Ward, will give MSU maybe the best front line in the country.

Izzo has enjoyed great fortune in retaining his top players. Draymond Green, seen showing off again Sunday (19/12/9 slash line) for the Golden State Warriors, wasn't high on the mock drafts after his junior year and stuck around for his third Big Ten title. Denzel Valentine was a senior last year when he was named National Player of the Year.

As a coach in this era, you're unique if you can keep players attending class longer than they would prefer. Izzo is unique.

Trouble starts on mound

Moving to baseball, Illinois pitchers' earned run average for a 14-19 season is 6.23. You can't win that way. End of story.

In nine Big Ten games, the Illini have given up 84 runs. That's more than one per inning. You can't win that way, even if you let Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo lead off every inning.

Trouble started when Cody Sedlock, who followed southpaw Tyler Jay as Illini MVP, turned pro after his junior year (drafted by Baltimore). That left Doug Hayes and Cole Bellair as returning weekend starters with huge Michigan product Luke Shilling likely to join them.

Except for a few minor adjustments. Hayes, team leader with six wins in 2016, encountered arm trouble and is redshirting. Bellair has been hit hard and is a reclamation project as he starts today's 6 p.m. home game against Western Michigan. And Shilling's 90 mph offerings have been traveling northeast at an even higher speed (five homers in the first two innings of a 17-6 loss to Michigan State.)

That forced coach Dan Hartleb to shake things up with freshman Ty Weber, the most solid starter all year, being joined by a fellow Wisconsin product, Cyrillo Watson, and Normal senior Matthew James as the weekend trio. James' effective but short start (five-plus innings) in Sunday's 10-8 win over Northwestern was his first in Big Ten play.

There are other problems beyond pitching. While the Illinois softball team is knocking the ball all over the lot, only two Illini baseball players are batting over .280: leadoff man Jack Yalowitz at .360 and first-sacker Pat McInerney at .339.

In particular, the Illini lost a lot of pop from behind the plate when four-year standout Jason Goldstein graduated. Catchers Mark Skonieczny and David Craan are hitting .146 and .165, respectively, though Skonieczny scored walk-off runs in last week's wins over Illinois State and Northwestern.

Hitting wouldn't be such a concern if the pitching was acceptable. Hartleb's task is to find a way to reach closer Joey Gerber, a hard-throwing sophomore from Minnesota. Gerber has 28 strikeouts in 24 innings and a 2.63 ERA. But how does Hartleb handle the first seven or eight innings?

Tate's tidbit

Nobody had greater love for baseball than Ted Flora, former Illini pitching coach for whom memorial services were held Monday in Dakota Springs, S.D.

The former Chicago Cub farmhand served with head coach Tom Dedin in the 1980s, and stayed in touch with the Illini, most recently helping land South Dakotan David Kerian, leading slugger for the 50-win team in 2015.

Flora, 86, will be laid to rest next to wife Donna in Des Plaines at a later date.

Loren Tate can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Comments

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Moonpie wrote on April 18, 2017 at 9:04 am

Thanks, Capt Obvious. I guess Ancient Cheerleader ran out of columns to write--again.