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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Spartans star says he passed up early exit to NBA so he could 'learn how to win'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Miles Bridges of Michigan State goes up for the ball Sunday in a victory over North Carolina during the PK80 Invitational at Moda Center.
There's an inner peace in Miles Bridges that transcends earthly pleasures.

How else to explain him passing up millions of dollars as a lottery pick in the June NBA draft to return for his sophomore season at Michigan State?

Here was Bridges' explanation after the fourth-ranked Spartans' 63-45 win over ninth-ranked North Carolina Sunday night for the PK80 Victory Bracket title at Moda Center:

"Last year, we didn't accomplish what we could have accomplished, because injuries got in the way. I wanted to come back and live out these moments, like learning how to win a championship. Because if I get to the next level, I'm still going to have to learn how to win. I might as well do it now."PK80

It's not "if" Bridges will get to the NBA. It's when. And when will be next season. He was projected to be a lottery pick after his freshman year at Michigan State, and the athletic swing man will be one after this season.

The 6-7 southpaw is God's gift to Tom Izzo, and the veteran Spartan coach is fortunate enough to have him for one more season than he expected.

Bridges was all smiles in the Michigan State locker room Sunday night, flush with excitement over the Spartans' defensive performance in a historically poor offensive game for North Carolina.

The Tar Heels shot .246 from the field and were 1 for 18 from 3-point range — both all-time lows for a program that has spanned more than 120 years and won seven NCAA championships.

"That's crazy," Bridges said. "We just stuck to our defensive principles. We tried to get a hand up on every shot, because once they get going, they're one of the best offenses in the country. I feel like our guards did a good job, and our bigs did a great job."

North Carolina coach Roy Williams credited Michigan State's defense, but offered a mea culpa after witnessing the Tar Heels' historically lousy 40 minutes of basketball.

"That was about as bad an exhibition as I've ever seen," Williams told the media. "I did as poor a job coaching as any game I've ever coached. (The Spartans) were physically, emotionally more into the game than my team was.

"I mean, how can you play that poorly? I will look at myself a million times more than I look at the kids. The way we played was about the most shocking game I've ever coached. … missed layups, missed free throws, turnovers … I don't know what it was, except the head coach didn't do a very good job. Our freshmen acted like freshmen, but so did our seniors. And so did our coach."

Bridges came into this season with a bevy of accolades after an outstanding freshman campaign. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America while averaging 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds as Michigan State went 20-15 and lost to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Bridges, cover boy of the Sports Illustrated preseason issue, was NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year and was tabbed by Athlon Sports as the nation's top player going into this season.

It hasn't started the way Bridges envisioned, however. After he sprained his left ankle in a Nov. 14 loss to Duke, team medical personnel announced he was expected to miss "at least a couple of weeks."

The Flint, Michigan, native sat out only two games, including the Spartans' PK80-opening victory over DePaul. Just 11 days after the injury, Bridges returned for a 77-57 win over Connecticut Friday night, contributing six points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.

"I'm a quick healer," Bridges said. "I give all the glory to God for healing me."

In Sunday's win over North Carolina, Bridges collected 11 points and five rebounds in 26 minutes. His best moment came with Michigan State ahead 55-43 with four minutes left and the shot clock winding down. Bridges took a pass at the top of the key, feinted left, blew by his defender right and laid the ball in cleanly with his right hand.

Bridges wasn't limping Sunday night, but he is clearly not fully healed.

"Miles is not playing at a 100 percent, I promise you all that," Izzo said.

"I'm getting closer," Bridges said. "Every day is a progressing day for me. I just need to keep icing it and treating it."

Just having Bridges on the court is a bonus for Izzo, who jokingly told his star player, "If you ever get hurt again, I'm gonna kill ya."

Bridges was disappointed to not be at full strength for PK80.

"Of course I was frustrated about not being 100 percent for this tournament, one of the best tournaments ever," he said. "But my teammates stepped up in the three games. I give all the credit to them."

Sophomore guard Joshua Langford was the ringleader against the Tar Heels with 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including 5 for 7 on 3-point attempts. He is Bridges' best friend on the team.

"I feel like I've known him my whole life," Bridges said. "Four of us (Bridges, Langford, senior guard Lourawls Nairn and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr.) live in the same apartment. We're pretty close."

No wonder Bridges is a favorite of Izzo.

"I just love Miles Bridges," Izzo said. "The thing I love about him, he is working 24/7. He is starting to watch (video). He is in there in the morning. He has a passion for the game. He wants to be the best.

"I think you're going to see Miles get back on track in the next couple of weeks. He has things to learn, too. He's not perfect. He's a good player, but an unbelievable kid."

NBA scouts will take Bridges' character into account when the draft comes around. Where does his humility come from?

"My parents, my savior God, Jesus Christ, and my teammates," he said. "They keep me humble every day."

His goal this season, he said, is to help Michigan State win an NCAA championship. Individual goals?

"Of course, I'd love to be national player of the year," he said, smiling. "But I'm going to keep winning first above any individual goals."

Interview over, Bridges had one request for a reporter, directed at a Trail Blazers rookie who played against him in the Big Ten for Purdue last season.

"Tell Caleb (Swanigan) hi for me," Bridges said.

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@kerryeggers

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