MSU's Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown under the gun with Joshua Langford out
East Lansing – Tom Izzo knows if he was in the same position as Joshua Langford, he’d be “ticked off at the world.”
The Michigan State coach made that admission on Tuesday, the day before the Spartans found out Langford would need surgery to repair a stress reaction in his ankle and would be lost for the remainder of the season.
But the sentiment was the same as Izzo was feeling down about the fact that his junior guard had, to that point, missed eight games.
Langford himself was not allowing the bad break to get him down.
“I said to him the other day, ‘You hanging in there, man?’” Izzo said. “‘Coach, I’m good, quit worrying about me, think about the team.’ I have so much respect and so much admiration for what that kid is doing right now and I just hope that things are going to work out for him, no matter what it is, I hope things work out for him a little sooner rather than later. At the same time I am appreciative of the growth he's had as a leader, how he's handled players, how he's handled coaches, and mostly how he's been to me.”
How much that changes at this point for Langford is tough to gauge. He’s done his best over the past few weeks to remain engaged and keep pushing his teammates, not missing a game and being on the bench every night.
Izzo said he gave Langford some coaching responsibilities, having him monitor out-of-bounds plays, and he’s been vital in the development of freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, the two players whose playing time has been directly impacted by Langford’s absence.
It’s that role that might be most vital in the second half of the Big Ten season.
“He has become such a good leader,” Izzo said. “He's helped the two guys that are kind of replacing him a lot.”
It’s not something No. 6 Michigan State expected to be worrying about this season. However, the need to find a way to make up for Langford’s absence has been accelerated, even more so by the fact junior Kyle Ahrens has been in and out of the lineup the last five games with a bad back.
Langford was averaging better than 28 minutes a game was scoring 15 points a game. Ahrens’ playing time took off early in the season when Matt McQuaid missed three games with a thigh bruise and he’s been a 20-plus minutes-a-night guy since, scoring in double figures twice.
If he’s healthy – Ahrens said he expect to play Saturday vs. Indiana – it helps soften the blow a bit. But that could be dicey and has Izzo just as worried about Ahrens as he was about Langford.
“The guy jumps on the floor, he falls on the floor, he plays harder than anybody I've ever had,” Izzo said of Ahrens. “So, I think he's going to have a bad back the rest of the year.”
That means, of course, there is no more easing into things for Henry and Brown. Michigan State is good enough to compete for the Big Ten title and make a Final Four run, even without Langford. But replacing his offense, defensive intensity and experience will be difficult.
In a way, it will take something from Ahrens, Henry and Brown. What Ahrens brings is clear – intensity, athleticism and the ability to shoot the 3-pointer. Can it get to the level Langford was at, who was shooting better than 40 percent from long range? That’s tough to say. Probably not, which makes the development of Henry and Brown so vital.
Henry has already established himself in the rotation, bringing an athleticism few on the roster have. Like most freshmen, though, the consistency has been lacking. The bigger wildcard is Brown. A good 3-point shooter who never lacks in confidence, Brown has made steady progress defensively but, like Henry, hasn’t shown the consistency.
It’s all made this week all the more critical for the Spartans (18-3, 9-1 Big Ten), who haven’t played since Sunday’s loss to Purdue, which ended a 13-game winning streak.
“They need to get better,” Izzo said. “I think Aaron has gotten a little bit better, I think the other guy who needs to get a little better who's maybe not quite ready for it yet is Gabe, but the injuries are what they are. There's 54 minutes of basketball players not playing right now (including Langford and Ahrens) out of the 200 minutes that we play, so we do need to get them better. That's what practice is for, to try and get those guys to work on some offensive things.
“You aren't necessarily going to be able to make guys be better shooters, but they're going to have to spend more time, we're going to have to spend more time because this is a good enough team, but we've been dealt a tough couple blows.”
The domino effect of Langford’s absence and Ahrens being in and out has put more pressure on Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid. Each played more than 35 minutes at Purdue, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Winston is affected because McQuaid no longer has the freedom to spell Winston at the point with two wings injured. Along with the fact freshman Foster Loyer isn’t ready to play significant minutes at the point, it leads to Winston’s heavy minutes. Also, teams are now guarding center Nick Ward differently with shooters like Langford and Ahrens out.
“When you take a couple cogs out of the wheel, it doesn’t work as well,” Izzo said. “Whether anyone wants to hear it I don’t really care. We took two of our best shooters out of the lineup, so they’re gonna guard Nick different, they’re gonna guard Cassius.
“We don’t want to make excused about it, but it is a reality. The reality is people can do more to Nick when we don’t have those two shooters. So, we’ll devise a couple new ways to do some things and get the freshmen to be better shooters.”