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Miles Bridges is back at Michigan State, and that’s good for college basketball

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, left, calls Miles Bridges’ decision to return to East Lansing for his sophomore season “a Christmas present in April.” (Al Goldis/AP)

Less than 10 minutes had passed before Michigan State’s Miles Bridges was asked to address college basketball’s turbulent offseason during his interview session at Big Ten media days last month. Unlike many other players at the event at Madison Square Garden, none of whom carried the national profile of Bridges, the Spartans forward seemed to invite frank conversation about the FBI investigation into the corruption of the sport.

“Of course, people are going to be way more scared to do stuff now illegally,” Bridges said. “So I think the FBI coming in really helps” college basketball.

Another thing that really helps college basketball: the return of Bridges, who stunned everyone in April when he announced that he would forgo the NBA draft and return to East Lansing, Mich., for his sophomore season. For months, that decision was the most significant story line of the upcoming season, a player who shunned lottery pick status to return as the centerpiece of the second-ranked Spartans, who have four returning starters and are again a national championship contender.

But then came the FBI’s sting in late September, which ensnared a number of major programs and kicked off what probably has been the most scandalous offseason in the history of the sport. It only got worse last week when three UCLA players — including LiAngelo Ball — were arrested in China for allegedly shoplifting before the team’s season opener against Georgia Tech.

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In New York, Bridges mentioned Ball’s father when he addressed the Spartans’ national title ambitions: “We might as well speak it into existence, like LaVar Ball said,” Bridges quipped, admitting that it wasn’t possible to escape the noise surrounding the expectations for his program.

It might not be possible to escape the negative noise swirling around the sport, either, but at least Bridges still gives the on-court product a legitimate, blockbuster star. The Spartans, who opened the season with a 98-66 win over North Florida last week, will meet No. 1 Duke on Tuesday in Chicago as part of the Champions Classic, considered college basketball’s most prestigious early-season event. Kentucky will meet Kansas in the other game.

“It’s not just another game,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “I don’t think it’s just another game for them either, it’s one of the greatest nights of college basketball with those four teams playing. I’m damn proud that we’re one of the four.”

Izzo called Bridges’s surprising decision to return to school “a Christmas present in April.” His mother, Cynthia, who had raised Bridges in Flint, Mich., wanted her son to declare for the draft. She eventually supported his decision, he said, which was made because he didn’t think he had “lived out his college experience like he wanted to.”

“It shows the kind of guy he is. He turned down going to the NBA for here, just to come back and be a part of this special program,” Michigan State junior guard Kyle Ahrens said.

The 6-foot-7 Bridges had a noteworthy freshman season in East Lansing — he averaged 16.9 points, just shy of tying Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s record scoring average (17.0) for a freshman. Bridges also led the team with 8.3 rebounds per game; in his 32 games, he led the team in scoring 17 times and in rebounding 18 times. But while all of that production solidified his profile as the perfect future small forward in the NBA, there were still holes in his game.

In deciding to return to school, Bridges slimmed down to 225 pounds and worked to sharpen his ballhandling and basketball IQ, which was questioned at times as he committed 2.4 turnovers per game.

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“Miles is, I think, somebody special for all college basketball because he’s — I call him my blue-collar star,” Izzo said. “And he’s got the humility and the humbleness of an everyday player and the skills of a very, very good player.”

Michigan State has a collection of very good players — including three other members that were part of the celebrated 2016 recruiting class with Bridges in center Nick Ward, point guard Cassius Winston and shooting guard Joshua Langford — as well as freshman power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who is expected to be among the best rookies in the country. Bridges lit up when he broke down Michigan State’s roster in October, but he also wasn’t afraid to address darker topics.

Bridges could not have predicted that his return to the college game would coincide with so much controversy off the court, although he said in October that he wasn’t surprised by the FBI’s investigation.

“I’m just happy I went to Michigan State and did things the right way,” he said, “instead of going other places.”

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