Indianapolis — In the moments after Michigan State’s comeback bid fall short against Kansas on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic, Joshua Langford wasn’t in the mood to talk about how close the Spartans came.
After falling behind by 17 points in the first half, Michigan State rallied to cut the deficit to three in the final minutes against No. 1 Kansas, only to come up short on its final two possessions as the Jayhawks held on for the 92-87 victory.
“If we want to win the national championship, we want to win the Big Ten outright, we’ve just got to play better, period,” Langford said. “It can’t be too many more ‘Could have did this,’ or ‘Look at the bright side.’
"It’s time for us to make that step as team, as well as me as a leader.”
That last part was the key. Langford knows it. His coach knows it.
For the first 20 minutes, Langford was just out there. He wasn’t doing what coach Tom Izzo said last week would be the difference between good and great for Michigan State.
So, Izzo and Langford had a “conversation” at halftime.
“I told him how I thought he was playing,” Izzo said. “I told him he’s got to play better. He did play better in the second half and Josh is a good player. I told him he had to play better, I guess he listened.”
Langford was just 1-for-4 shooting in the first half and had picked up a pair of fouls to go with five points. He came to life in the second half, hitting three 3-pointers and finishing with a team-high 18 points, including shooting 4-for-6 from 3-point range.
"We had a chance in the second half": MSU coach Tom Izzo breaks down the loss to Kansas Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It was the sort of play the 10th-ranked Spartans need from Langford on a more consistent basis.
“This team needs Josh to play at a high level,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “He’s fully capable of it as you seen in the second half. We’ve just got to figure out a way to bring that from the jump. Bring it from the jump and we’ll be a much better team.”
Added Langford: “I've just got to be the guy that I need to be for this team.”
He’ll need some help, to be sure. Most of that will come from his classmates — Winston and center Nick Ward. Each had his moments against Kansas but all three need to pick their game up.
“Our juniors in the first half I think were 2-for-13,” Izzo said. “We’re not gonna win many games like that.”
It was actually 2-for-12, but the point was clear — Michigan State needs its best players to be their best.
All three were OK with good only mixed in at times. Ward defended solidly on Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike but was limited on the offensive end while Winston had 11 assists but turned the ball over five times and didn’t come up with a few big shots in the second half.
Winston was critical of his own play.
“I wasn't poised with the ball,” Winston said. “I did a lot of dumb things out there that kind of hurt us as a team. That's my job to take care of the basketball. There's no reason I should have five or six turnovers. That's on me to fix.”
MSU's Kenny Goins, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward on loss to Kansas. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Ward admitted he was having a tough time adjusting to how the game was being called as he tried to be physical with Kansas’ big front line.
But all were optimistic about things moving forward, even if the comeback didn’t make them feel any better about the fact they lost.
“I think we just found our zone,” Winston said. “We locked in as a team and I think that was the important thing. We didn’t want to let this team embarrass us We have guys with a lot of pride and talent and we fought our way back.”
The Spartans will take the court next at 6 p.m. Sunday when they host Florida Gulf Coast. After that, it’s a couple more tune-ups before they head to Las Vegas to take on UCLA and potentially North Carolina.
By then, the issues that arose on Tuesday will need to have been cleaned up and the trio of juniors will need to be more than OK.
“We will be better for playing this game, on this stage, in this tournament,” Izzo said.