Michigan State to lean on freshmen with Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens' health 'status quo'
East Lansing — Michigan State won on the road Sunday at Penn State with a lineup much more dependent on first-year players than at any point this season.
Expect the same thing when No. 6 Michigan State travels to Nebraska on Thursday as junior Joshua Langford almost certainly will miss his fifth game with an ankle injury, and fellow junior Kyle Ahrens is day-to-day with a back sprain.
That much was made clear by coach Tom Izzo at his weekly press conference Monday.
“As far as Josh and Kyle, it’s status quo,” Izzo said. “We’re hoping by the end of this week to know a little bit more on Josh. As far as Kyle goes it’s pretty much day-to-day. We left him home (from Penn State) so he didn’t ride on the plane with the sprained back. We won’t practice (Monday), but we should have better feel on him in the next couple of days.
“I think you saw the group we’re probably gonna play with on Thursday, (Sunday). So, we’ll see what happens.”
Izzo, of course, was referencing the lineup the Spartans (15-2, 6-0 Big Ten) used in their 71-56 victory over Penn State. With both Langford and Ahrens out, freshman Aaron Henry made his first career start and played a career-high 25 minutes while scoring seven points.
It also led to a career-best 21 minutes for Gabe Brown, who hit one of his four 3-point attempts and played better defensively than he did earlier in the season. Point guard Foster Loyer also saw an uptick in playing time, seeing 11 minutes when the Spartans opted to go smaller and because starter Cassius Winston got in foul trouble.
While the extra minutes will only benefit the freshmen, it’s also affected the way the Spartans are operating offensively. They remain one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, but the fast break that had been so effective has taken a hit as Michigan State has dropped 98th in the nation in tempo, according to Kenpom.com.
Plenty of that is counting on Henry and Brown to run the court the same way Langford and Ahrens have.
“Anytime you get experience it’s good for guys,” Izzo said, “but I don’t know if anything is good about having injuries. It makes it difficult as a coach and it makes it difficult for Cassius. He’s been running that break so well and all of a sudden, guys aren’t running as hard, they’re not running as wide, they’re not running as deep, so we’ve got some issues.
“I’d like to have utopia and have (no injuries), but we’ve had three and it’s been at the same position, more or less. So, I think the guys have handled it probably better than I have.”
The injury bug has seemed to hit Michigan State in one place this season — on the wings. Senior Matt McQuaid missed three games in late November and early December with a deep thigh bruise before Langford was knocked out. Ahrens, who has started in place of both McQuaid and Langford, is the latest perimeter player to miss time.
If the injuries continue to linger for Langford and Ahrens, the freshmen will be growing up during a difficult stretch that includes four of five games on the road.
After Thursday’s trip to Nebraska, the Spartans host Maryland to open next week as the Terrapins entered Monday’s game against Wisconsin winners of five straight. They finish the week with trips to Iowa and Purdue.
“These next 10 days, with the people we’re playing, is really gonna lead to some challenges and it starts with no better team than Nebraska,” Izzo said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’ve got to get on track with our freshman. We need to get the break back on track, get our legs running again. It’s been a little frustrating in that respect, but it’s also been rewarding that we’re 15-2 going through McQuaid early, Josh for quite a while now and Arnie late. They’re all at similar positions, which probably makes the run a little more impressive if I was an optimist or a little more disappointing if I was a pessimist.”