MSU's Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins talk about the challenges Nebraska present and not taking any Big Ten team lightly. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing – It’s easy to look at the stat sheet and see what Michigan State is missing without Joshua Langford in the lineup.
There’s the 15 points a game as well as the 40.3 percent 3-point shooting. Not as clear but just as important is the defensive effort the junior brings, not to mention the experience of having played in big game after big games.
What’s tougher to gauge for No. 6 Michigan State is what effect his absence has on his teammates — namely guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward. Together, the trio represents the bulk of the Spartans’ scoring. Without Langford, defenses aren’t nearly as challenged, resulting in a renewed focus on Winston and Ward.
“That’s what’s hard for Cassius right now because he’s the kind of guy that just plays and has always figured it out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But Cassius and Nick are gonna get more attention. They’re gonna get more attention now because we lost a couple of guys that were playing awfully well.”
Langford is expected to miss his fifth straight game Thursday when the Spartans hit the road to take on Nebraska. He hasn’t played since the first half of the Northern Illinois game because of a bad ankle and there’s no firm timetable on when he might return.
On top of that, his replacement in the starting lineup — junior Kyle Ahrens — could miss his second game with a bad back.
Naturally, with offensive options limited, Winston and Ward have started to draw most of the attention. It’s something Ward has dealt with often as teams began double-teaming him last season following his breakout freshman year.
“I told Nick this last year, ‘It’s a compliment to get double-teamed,’” Izzo said. “Nick didn’t like that last year. Now he agrees with it and has learned to work his way out of it. I can actually count the turnovers on a finger that he’s had out of that post and last year I’d have to use 10 fingers, 10 toes. He’s definitely improved on that.”
Ward admitted it was a tough transition. Last season, he would often just try to muscle his way through the double team, often leading to a bad shot or a turnover.
“I would just say, ‘Leave me alone, let me go one-on-one and we’ll have an easy game,’” Ward said. “Last year, I saw it as just bothering me."
This year, well, Ward has become much more relaxed and efficient when the double-team comes as he adjusts to whatever teams throw at him. Some will double him on every post touch, others will mix it up. Expect Nebraska to do the same as the Cornhuskers often go back and forth between man-to-man defense and a 1-3-1 zone.
“I love it,” Ward said. “It challenges me,” Ward said. “It’s a compliment. You’re saying that you can’t defend me one-on-one with your bigs and you have to bring another defender over.
“This year, I’m seeing it as a compliment and making reads off it.”
Ward’s progress has been impressive. He’s averaging a career-best 16.6 points a game and his shooting 65.4 percent from the field. Ward has also handed out 16 assists, which isn’t a ton but is roughly one a game and is already two away from matching his high of 18 from all of last season.
Winston has had a front-row seat, seeing how much Ward’s improvement has helped Michigan State’s offense.
“It changes the whole game,” Winston said. “If you double him and we're hitting shots, he's getting it out. Threes hurt for sure. Once you stop that and you try to check him on-on-one, that's a tough battle in itself right there.”
Now, it’s Winston that’s seeing the double-teams and the added attention from opposing defenses.
It was enough to have him out of sorts in the win over Penn State on Sunday. He finished with seven assists but scored just 11 points and turned the ball over six times. It was his Winston’s worst game as a Spartan, Izzo said.
Winston expects the Huskers, who are second in the Big Ten in scoring defense and have plenty of length on the perimeter, to continue to hound him. That includes trying to deny him the outlet pass on the fast break, where Michigan State is as good as any team in the country.
“It’s just hard to do that because if you’re gonna do it, you gotta do it for 40 minutes because we don’t just stop coming,” Winston said. “That’s where the challenge is. You can try and jam it for the first five minutes, but after that, we’re gonna keep coming and keep pushing. That’s just what we do.”
With Ward and Winston getting most of the attention, the Spartans will need some offense from other sources. Senior guard Matt McQuaid scored 15 at Penn State and sophomore big man Xavier Tillman and senior forward Kenny Goins have had their share of big games.
The Spartans will also need something from freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, who have gotten the bulk of the minutes with Langford and Ahrens out.
“You can’t replace them with one player,” McQuaid said. “Josh is one of the best two-way players in country and Kyle brings toughness, energy, a shooter to our team. Those are two big losses for us, so we can’t replace them with one player. So, guys have to raise their game to another level.”
No. 6 Michigan State at Nebraska
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 15-2, 6-0 Big Ten; Nebraska 13-4, 3-3
Outlook: The Cornhuskers enter the game having won 20 straight home games, matching a program record that dates to 1967. … Nebraska players have had 14 20-point games this season. James Palmer Jr. has eight while Isaac Copeland Jr. has three, Isaiah Roby two and Glynn Watson Jr. one. … Nebraska is averaging 8.3 steals a game, which leads the Big Ten and ranks 34th nationally.