-- Editor's note: The 2016-17 college basketball season will be the "Year of the Freshmen,"?featuring what could be the best class we've ever seen. Over the next two weeks, we will get familiar with the best of the best, examining who they are and where each of the top 10 prospects in the 2016 ESPN 100 came from.
Read more: No. 10 Duke's Frank Jackson | No. 9 Kentucky's Malik Monk
No. 8 Michigan State's Mile Bridges | No. 7 Washington's Markelle Fultz
No. 6 Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox | No. 5 Kentucky's Bam Adebayo
No. 4 UCLA's Lonzo Ball | No. 3 Duke's Jayson Tatum
No. 2 Kansas' Josh Jackson | No. 1 Duke's Harry Giles
The Washington Marriott Wardman Park is a sprawling maze: 195,000 square feet of "meeting rooms, breakout rooms, and ballrooms of various sizes" designed to, as its web site explains, "provide an ideal setting for whatever you're planning, regardless of size or scope."
Salon 3, the ballroom into which Miles Bridges has just walked, is laughably surplus to current requirements. In a few hours, in an identical room next door, the setting will be far more ideal. Coaches and players will camp at team-specific conference tables; cameras and microphones will rove between them in packs.
It will be hectic, but the scope will make sense -- especially for Bridges.
The No. 8-ranked player in the class of 2016 might be Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's most talented recruit ever. At minimum, the 6-foot-7 wing is the gem of the Hall of Famer's most lauded freshmen class, a group State fans have called, simply enough, "The Class." Bridges is the likeliest among them to be in the NBA less than a year from now. His athleticism and 1-through-4 versatility represent the most obvious key to the Spartans' 2016-17 season. Given MSU's personnel losses last spring, it's practically the start of a new era.
Even Bridges' presence at the event elicits a noise unto itself: In 21 seasons, he's the first freshman Izzo has ever taken to media day.
Then, of course, there's the small matter of Bridges' hometown: Flint, Michigan, the same place that birthed Michigan State legends Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, better known as the "Flintstones."
And then there's this:
"I think Miles Bridges is the next Flintstone," Izzo said. "He's a blue-collar superstar. Which fits me, and our program, perfectly."
BACK IN SALON 3, the only noise is the 18-year-old's voice, explaining how he dabbled with the idea of walking away from his own ideal setting -- between coach and recruit, player and team, program and hometown.
It's true. For a minute there (or a few months, or maybe a whole year), Bridges was interested in breaking the Flint-Sparty mold.
"Everybody, literally everybody, from Flint goes to Michigan State," Bridges said. "I wanted to switch it up at first. I wanted to be different."
There is something to be said for forging one's own path. Or, at the very least, not wearing the same button-down shirt every other dude at the party is wearing. The impulse of Michigan State men's basketball could apply to the entire region: 40 minutes north of Flint on I-75 is Saginaw, Michigan, the other half of what Izzo calls the "Flint-Saginaw group," which produced former Spartans stars Jason Richardson and Draymond Green, among others. But Flint, specifically, shares an elevated place in Michigan State basketball lore, and in Izzo's heart.
"Every night when I go to bed and every day when I drive in to work, I realize the cars I drive, the house I live in, the summer I'm going to have is probably because of the Flintstones," Izzo said in February.
It's a hard act to follow. It's also a hard place to grow up.
Few American cities were so thoroughly hollowed out by the prevailing economic and demographic forces -- deindustrialization, globalization, white flight, urban decay -- of the late 20th century. In 1908, General Motors was founded in Flint. In 1978, it employed nearly 80,000 people in the area. In 2010, it employed 8,000. Between 2010 and 2014, when U.S. median household income was $53,482, Flint's was $24,679.
In 2015, according to U.S. Census data, Flint's poverty rate was 40.1 percent. Few cities are more violent per capita. In just the past year, a federal public health state of emergency was declared when lead poisoning -- from a contaminated local water supply -- was discovered among thousands of residents.
Or, as Bridges put it: "Everybody knows it's tough out there."
Bridges' parents divorced when he was a kid; he felt like the man of the house by 11. He saw fights at schools, drugs sold in plain view, and, among peers, an understood goal: get out.
"In my generation, not a lot of people do," he said. "They become victims to society."
By his freshman year of high school, it was clear basketball would be Bridges' chance. Before the start of 10th grade, he transferred to powerhouse Huntington Prep in Huntington, West ?Virginia, and, more or less, started over.
Izzo and his staff had known Bridges since he was in eighth grade. They had built a strong relationship, gotten used to seeing him around. After the move to West Virginia, though, Bridges "kind of disappeared for a while," Izzo said. The Spartans were still chasing him, of course, but his path was no longer so preordained. He looked at Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana, UConn. He had left home, forced himself to come out of his own shell, matured "as a young man and in my game," even interned under a circuit court judge. If he was tempted to make a clean break, to leave Flint behind for good, who could blame him?
Then came his official visit to East Lansing.
A few months later, on the first day allowed by NCAA rules, Bridges mailed Izzo his letter of intent.
"I just felt it," Bridges said. "I felt like I belonged there."
TOM IZZO CAN?be self-critical to a fault.
Example No. 1: He is haunted by last season's first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State. This is understandable. The No. 2-seeded Spartans were a heavy Final Four favorite, led by senior guard Denzel Valentine, before they gave up 90 points on 68 possessions to Conference USA's seventh-best offense. That one stings. Fair enough.
Less fair, perhaps: Izzo blames himself for not calling a timeout until Middle Tennessee had opened its early 15-2 lead. ("Nobody else, I made the mistake," Izzo said last month. "This year, if we get down 12-0, there will be a timeout called. And I mean that sincerely.") In reality, there's no one to blame for Middle Tennessee's 40-minute, out-of-body experience. Basketball can be weird.
Example No. 2: It took Izzo until this summer?-- after 19 straight tournament appearances, seven Final Fours and induction into the Hall of Fame -- to admit his program had built a culture.
"Early on, after we won the national championship, everybody was ready to canonize us," Izzo said. "I thought, come back in 10, 12 years. We've had some really good teams, but we had a couple of years where in my mind we were good but the culture wasn't the same."
It's different now. Last season, Valentine and Matt Costello led one of the tightest-knit, hardest-working teams of their coach's career. Those good vibes have become self-sustaining. Seniors and juniors carry them forward. The Spartans are already equating this team's chemistry to last season's, remarkable given the turnover in personnel. Meanwhile, it has become a bona fide recruiting advantage: Prospects want playing time and a chance to go pro, sure, but some are just as interested in being part of a family.
When Bridges took his official visit, he stayed with senior guard Tum Tum Nairn, the team's universally beloved Bahamian, a born leader, one of Izzo's favorite people in the world. What could have been a casual arm's-length weekend was, instead, a two-day crash course in bonding.
"I believe it's one of my gifts to understand people just from a conversation," Nairn said. "I care about people. That's just who I am. I show them love. So when guys come to visit, I can get a good feel for them, even in two days. You can't hide who you really are. And Miles was just himself -- just a regular kid who has great power and weight behind his name, but is so humble in spirit. It was easy to see."
Bridges and Nairn immediately hit it off. As did Bridges, Joshua Langford and the rest of the freshman class.?Veteran? Eron Harris?described the star-studded newcomers as his "brothers for life." Brotherhood and family are frequent terms; open expressions of love are the norm.
In Bridges, Izzo saw a player whose ethos aligned perfectly with his own. The kid required "none of the frills" during his recruitment, didn't need heavy flattery or constant attention. Izzo has been even more impressed since Bridges arrived. Prospects of his caliber "sometimes come in and think they know everything," Izzo said. Bridges, instead, is a "sponge," a player with massive gifts and minimal ego -- "a regular superstar."
For reasons that go far beyond basketball, it's a perfect fit.
"I guess I am willing to say it now," Izzo said. "You know what? We've built a culture."
IF CULTURE YIELDS an advantage on the floor -- and what coach would argue otherwise -- the Spartans will need to draw on it immediately.
Michigan State's November schedule is almost masochistic. The Spartans open in Hawaii at the Armed Forces Classic against a top-15 Arizona team. Four days later, they fly to New York, where they'll meet No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. On Nov. 23, they begin the Battle 4 Atlantis, a field that includes Louisville, Baylor, Wichita State and VCU. And four days after that, they're in Durham, North Carolina, for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against loaded preseason title favorite Duke.
If that wasn't brutal enough (and it was), MSU will likely take it on without Gavin Schilling and transfer big Ben Carter, both of whom suffered injuries this fall. Of last year's significant contributors, only Harris returns, and with a much heavier load on his shoulders.
To say Bridges, Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will be thrown in the deep end is like saying the Iron Islands crown kings with a gentle dip in the surf.
To rise harder and stronger, Bridges will have to unleash his talents from the jump. The Spartans' staff has a history of maximizing versatile wings with skills and size, and few have arrived in East Lansing with this combination thereof. The 6-foot-7 lefty has the chops to comfortably play the 2, 3 and 4 in State's half-court sets. His coach will constantly probe the floor for mismatches he can exploit, and there will be plenty.
On defense, Bridges has the size and speed to switch screens and credibly guard all five spots. Izzo's teams are renowned for their rebounding, but less so for what those defensive rebounds often produce: attacking secondary breaks. ("Everybody tries to make it into this plowhorse thing, that if you're a good rebounding team, you're this big, physical brute," Izzo said. "We've never been BIG big. We rebound ... and then we run.") Which should, in theory, allow Bridges to do stuff like this:
It's an exciting prospect, to say the least. Bridges' exhibition debut in late October -- 33 points (12-of-14), eight rebounds, four blocks and three assists -- did little to dampen the noise.
Still, from the schedule to key injuries to plain old inexperience, plenty of trials lay ahead. And the bar -- "next Flintstone" -- is already high.
AS A SENIOR IN HIGH SCHOOL, even all the way out in Huntington, Bridges organized a collection for water access in his hometown. He feels a responsibility to help the people of Flint in any way he can after the water disaster. People will thank him on Twitter for lending a prominent voice to their anger.
"I can use that platform," Bridges said. "I want to change my city."
Said Izzo: "The toughness and resiliency of that city, the way people keep getting knocked down and keep bouncing back up, it becomes a part of you."
It has become an inextricable part of Izzo's program. Bridges could have avoided all of it. He could have shrugged off the "power and weight behind his name." He could have been just another talented future NBA draft pick at another elite basketball program. He could have let basketball take him far away from Flint -- out. He could have looked at the pressures inherent in legacy and opted for a different, quieter path.
Instead, his ideal setting was right there all along.
"Because at the end of the day, I couldn't run from it," Bridges said. "I knew where I belonged."