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Izzo pleased with Ellis' effort in rare start

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Alvin Ellis (3) gets fouled on the way to the basket by Nebraska's Michael Jacobson in the first half.

East Lansing — For the first time since the season-opener his freshman year, Alvin Ellis was in the Michigan State starting lineup on Thursday night.

The Michigan State senior got the call after fellow senior Eron Harris was lost for the season after injuring his knee last weekend in a loss at Purdue. In his previous 128 career games, Ellis had started just twice — once as a freshman and then in the opener at Navy the next season. Ellis injured his ankle during that game and never found his way back as a starter.

Until Thursday in Michigan State’s 88-72 victory over Nebraska. It wasn’t perfect — Ellis had three early turnovers before settling in and scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds in 28 minutes.

“I didn’t like the way he responded at the beginning,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He turned it over I think three times in the first couple of minutes. I told him, ‘The first shot might go into the tuba. Don’t be cool and casual because I know you’re excited, you better be excited.’ But I still think he was solid. He didn’t shoot as well. He did rebound pretty well, he defended better than decent. The turnovers trying to feed Nick (Ward) was not good, but after the first three turnovers he played pretty well.”

Ellis earned the start by being one of Michigan State’s most productive players off the bench this season. He’s mixed in his share of big moments this season, including scoring a career-high 20 in an overtime win at Minnesota in which he made the winning free throws. He scored 16 the next time out in a win over Northwestern and had 18 last week in a victory over Ohio State, a game in which Ellis made his first five 3-point attempts.

“I’m real motivated,” Ellis said. “I’m going to try and do what I can for all the seniors that went down this year. Some will get another chance but I know Eron doesn’t and I’ll try and pick it up for him.”

Filling in for Harris is just the latest kink in a rotation that has been far from fluid this season. Against Nebraska on Thursday night, the Spartans used their ninth different starting lineup this season as Ellis was joined by Tum Tum Nairn, Joshua Langford, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Those four have started eight of the last 10 games, but Izzo has routinely used 11 players in most games.

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It’s something that has simply been a reality all season, mostly because of injuries before the season to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter along with a seven-game absence for Bridges.

“It’s not like all year anything’s been different as far as the lineup,” Izzo said. “It always seems to be ever-changing, but it’s nobody’s fault. Not very often is it because some guys play better or worse, it’s just because of the situations we’ve been placed in.”

Big game for Langford

While Ellis got his first start, Langford was in the starting lineup for the 20th time this season. He responded to Harris’ absence by scoring a career-high 17 points.

“I just wanted to come in and give my team a push in every facet of the game,” Langford said. “Rebounding, running the floor, defense. I felt like had some defensive mistakes, some boneheaded mistakes, but at the same time I still wanted to come in and give my team an extra push with Eron being out.”

It’s been an up-and-down season for the freshman, who battled an early hamstring injury. The progress has been slow, but Izzo is confident in the 6-foot-5 guard.

“It’s taken longer,” Izzo said. “He’s a unique kid but he’s getting more comfortable and confident and he’ll have to do that. He can really guard, too. He got a couple rebounds … He’s got some work to do but he definitely looked more aggressive.”

Slam dunks

Bridges and Ward each scored 20 points in the victory, marking the first time two Michigan State freshmen have scored 20 or more in the same game since Jan. 5, 1978.

In that win over Minnesota, Earvin “Magic” Johnson scored 31 and Jay Vincent had 22.

… Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell and members of his staff were at the game. They met with the Spartans afterwards.


Twitter.com: @mattcharboneau