BY JOHN ROHDE
March 18, 2017
TULSA — Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges grew up roughly an hour apart in Michigan, but they will showcase their talents at the BOK Center in Tulsa at 4:15 p.m. CT on Sunday when Kansas (29-4) and Michigan State (20-14) meet in a Midwest Regional second-round game.
Jackson and Bridges nearly wound up as teammates in East Lansing, Mich. Kansas won last year’s recruiting battle for Jackson, but Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game will determine who won the war to advance to this year’s Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
MSU coach Tom Izzo and KU coach Bill Self have crossed paths on the recruiting trail multiple times through the years. They co-existed in the Big Ten Conference for three seasons when Self coached at Illinois (2000-03) before heading to Kansas.
Izzo recalled how he made his sales pitch to Jackson, deemed the country’s No. 1 college prospect last year according to Rivals.com.
“I just got on my hands and knees and begged him. That’s what I did, and that wasn’t as good as Bill’s,” Izzo said.
Self’s secret to winning the recruiting battle? “Well, it’s just so much warmer in Kansas than Michigan, I guess,” Self said with a laugh. “I don’t know. He would have been an unbelievable impact player wherever he went, and I do know that it was not an easy decision for him. But hey, we’ve lost enough guys to Michigan State, we should win one every now and then.”
The reason Jackson chose KU? “I grew up a State fan,” Jackson explained, “but I believed I had a better chance of winning a national championship at Kansas.”
That’s saying a lot, given who already committed to last year’s MSU recruiting class. Before Jackson had made his decision, Izzo previously landed two of Jackson’s friends by signing Bridges and freshman guard Cassius Winston, whom Jackson has known since the second grade. Jackson and Winston both hail from Detroit while Bridges excelled roughly 70 miles north in Flint, Mich.
Had Jackson opted to join Bridges and Winston — plus freshmen starters Joshua Langford and Nick Ward — the No. 9-seeded Spartans and No. 1-seeded Jayhawks might have ended up swapping seeds in this year’s tournament.
“We’d all committed. He (Jackson) was the last piece, if you want to say that,” said the 6-foot Winston, who comes off the bench to average 6.7 points and a team-high 5.1 assists in 20.5 minutes. “He liked it, but at the end of the day he made the best decision for himself. He’s a great kid. I wish him the best in every aspect of the game.”
Izzo insists there were no hard feelings because of the way Jackson handled the recruiting process.
“Was it sad and disappointing?” Izzo said. “It was because I think it was a close fight to the finish. But I talked to Josh after it. Unlike some guys, he had the courage and respect to call me. A lot of kids don’t do that. I’ll always be a Josh Jackson fan — except for (Sunday) night for 40 minutes … and he’s pretty good friends with a lot of our guys that he played with. So it’s all good, you know.”
Jackson said he feels the same toward Izzo. “He was a little disappointed. I think he understood and respected my decision,” Jackson said. “My family (in Michigan) supported me. They were happy with the decision. A lot of Michigan State fans were hurt. Can’t please everybody.”
Jackson met Izzo while playing in a summer event between his freshman and sophomore seasons in high school. “I was star-struck a little bit, growing up a Michigan State fan. I have a lot of respect for him,” Jackson said. “I loved watching college basketball as a kid especially around March. Michigan State … out of all the times I watched them, I always felt they had a really tough team. I’ve seen them win, lose games, but I’ve never seen them out-toughed by another team. I liked that. I definitely could see myself going there.”
Despite playing his final two seasons of high school at Prolific Prep in Napa, Calif., Jackson still paid close attention to the Spartans. But when it came time to pick a college, Jackson opted to temporarily relocate to Lawrence, Kan., before bolting to the NBA after one season.
“He (Izzo) talked about me being able to come back home and play for the school I’ve always been rooting for since I was a kid,” Jackson said. “Being able to play with my friends … he really wanted me to think about how much fun that’d be. I still think about that from time to time, but I think I made the right decision.”
Bridges and Jackson are both listed as guards, but they’re both so multifaceted they can’t be pigeonholed into just one position.
Statistically, their seasons have been quite comparable. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges is averaging 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point range, plus 1.6 blocks and 0.7 steals. The 6-foot-8, 207-pound Jackson is averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3-point range, plus 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks.
Jackson on Bridges: “I know Miles’ game a little bit. He knows mine. It’ll be interesting to see how the game goes (Sunday). I know a lot of moves he likes to do. I don’t think I’m going to tell everybody. I’m pretty comfortable with his game as he is with mine. We are competitors who love to win. Whoever wins the game is going to talk trash to the other one later. We’ll try to win the game so we won’t have to hear it from the other guy later.”
Bridges on Jackson: ““I mean he’s like a brother to me. Every time we play against each other, it’s always competitive. I expect it to be the same (Sunday). It’s fun because we know each other’s games. We know how competitive we are. Whoever gets to win gets to talk stuff at the end. Whoever goes out and plays the hardest is going to win because both teams know each other so well. … He has a high motor. He never stops playing, plays with a lot of energy, stays on the glass. We just have to keep him off the glass. That’s what gives him a lot of his hustle points. He’s just a dog on the floor. That’s basically what he does.”
Jackson has evolved into becoming the best one-and-done ever to play for Self, a collection that includes Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, Kelly Oubre of the Washington Wizards and Oklahoma City’s Xavier Henry.
There will be moments during Sunday’s game, perhaps several, when Bridges and Jackson are matched against each other.
Asked if there was a need to caution Jackson for some temperament while facing Bridges, Self said, “That’s a great point. I know that I’ve had that conversation with Josh. I don’t know if Tom’s had it obviously with Miles. But you know, they are close, and they are buddies based on what I’ve been told. And certainly I don’t see any way around them not being matched up against each other a lot. I’m not saying every possession the entire possession … I really believe what’s best for both teams is that for them to guard somebody naturally they’re supposed to guard, and that’s each other. So it’ll be a fun matchup.”