Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about playing No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic, as well as his own team. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Two good teams trying to find themselves.
That’s the way Michigan State coach Tom Izzo summed up his team’s matchup with Kansas in the Champions Classic.
The Jayhawks come into Tuesday night’s 7 p.m. tip at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the No. 1 team in the nation, while the Spartans check in at No. 10. As talented as Kansas appears to be, though, there are some questions with a young backcourt, some transfers and the continued absence of forward Silvio De Sousa, who is sitting while his eligibility is confirmed.
Michigan State has its own questions to answer as it lost two lottery picks from last season’s team and looks to replace the production that left with Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Spartans are expecting more from juniors Nick Ward and Cassius Winston, two players who have already have proven they can put the ball in the basket.
But there is a wild card, one Izzo believes could be the difference: junior guard Joshua Langford.
“For us to be great we’ve got to get more out of Josh,” Izzo said Monday, adding senior guard Matt McQuaid into that mix. “Especially Josh, because he can play both ends of court. He needs to make sure he’s doing the things he needs to do, and we’re doing the things we need to do to get him the ball more in scoring position.”
Determining the difference between good and great — that’s essentially the theme most seasons at Michigan State. Izzo’s teams have made the NCAA Tournament 21 straight times, certainly the sign of a good team. Along the way there has been greatness, as evidenced by a national championship, seven trips to the Final Four and 13 Big Ten regular-season or tournament titles.
Finding that greatness this season depends a lot on Langford. The former high school All-American has shown flashes in his first two season that he can be the guy that leads a team to greatness. There was his 23 points early last season in a drubbing of North Carolina and a 22-point performance in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season against Bucknell.
But there have been just as many head-scratching games like the 1-for-12 shooting performance in the loss last season to Syracuse, two days after the Bucknell win.
Making the Syracuse-type games become less frequent is the key.
“Some of that falls on him being more aggressive and running harder,” Izzo said. “But some of that comes on us. We’ve got to get him the ball. We’ll get it inside to Nick and with two shooters on each wing, our best shooter (Winston) might be the one that distributes the ball. … The best way to get everyone shots, to me, is to run and Josh in open court is good. He has a great mid-range game. The second-best way is to make sure we don’t turn the ball over, because if you don’t have the ball you can’t shoot the ball.
“But I think Josh is the big key because he can play both ends of the court and there just aren’t a lot of great players that can score and guard, and he’s one of them.”
Doing that against Kansas won’t be easy. The Jayhawks will be young in the backcourt, but will be starting two five-star recruits in Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, with 6-foot-5 senior Lagerald Vick seeing his share of time.
It’s Grimes who likely will draw much of Langford’s attention and test the idea Langford can excel on both ends of the court, because the Spartans need him to put the ball in the basket as much as keeping the opponent from doing the same.
To that end, Langford said the intensity has been rising the last few days.
Michigan State's Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid talk about matching up against Kansas. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“Man, it’s been turned up few notches,” Langford said. “Considering the notch we already practice at, but now that Kansas is on clock it definitely has been a different environment. But I think that really has helped past Michigan State teams just because the environment Coach put us in before a game and the way he pushes his players. It’s definitely been turned up, but it will definitely benefit us for (Tuesday).”
The guard matchups won’t be the only tough ones for Michigan State. Containing forward Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, will be a challenge, as will containing 7-foot, 270-pound center Udoka Azubuike.
“Azubuike is a monster,” Izzo said. “When he rolls and stops it’s like a redwood tree stopping. That’s gonna be a challenge.”
Michigan State has had Kansas’ number in the Champions Classic, winning the first two meetings in 2011 in Atlanta and then beating the Jayhawks in Chicago in 2015 when Denzel Valentine had a triple double.
The last time the teams met was the NCAA Tournament in 2017 when the Jayhawks sent the Spartans home in the second round. Ward, Winston and Langford were there, as were McQuaid and senior Kenny Goins.
Langford hasn’t forgotten. He played 32 minutes but was just 4-for-9 shooting and finished with 10 points. He’s been thinking about that game and plenty more lately. If he is the difference Izzo believes he is, he is planning on proving it.
“I think more of what we take from that game is we kind of owe Kansas one,” Langford said. “I think everyone is on the same page and we are a good enough team, a great enough team to win this game.”
No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas
What: Champions Classic
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Outlook: This is the third time Michigan State has faced a No. 1 team in the event, beating Kentucky in 2013 and losing to Duke in 2017. … Michigan State and Kansas are both 3-4 in the Classic while Duke and Kentucky are 4-3. … Michigan State is 2-0 against Kansas in the Classic, winning in 2011 and 2015. … The Spartans are looking to end a two-game skid in the Classic after losses the last two years to Duke and Kentucky.