'No excuse': Langford-less Spartans still aiming high
East Lansing – Michigan State is one of the best teams in the nation, one that has the ability to win the Big Ten and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
That was true when Joshua Langford was in the lineup, remained true while he sat the last eight games because of an ankle injury, and remains a popular opinion even after the news came earlier this week that the junior guard would need surgery on his left ankle and be lost for the season.
It’s tough news for Tom Izzo and the sixth-ranked Spartans to digest, but not enough to derail what has already been an impressive run, thanks in large part to the play of junior point guard Cassius Winston, who has played himself into contenting for Big Ten Player of the Year and led Michigan State to a 13-game winning streak.
“Yeah, they’re a championship level team,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said on Friday. “(Losing Langford) more impacts how Tom is gonna approach Cassius and his rest and making sure he can stay as fresh as possible. It’s gonna have an emotional affect. This is a very close team. The one thing you know about Tom’s teams, they have a great trust and togetherness, and when one of your guys goes down it impacts others emotionally.
“But the key is how Josh handles it. Watching Josh engaged in the game, watching Josh being a great teammate on the bench, watching Josh basically embrace a new role. I think because he handles it that way I think the guys say, ‘All right, Josh is still with us in a lot of ways.’”
No. 6 Michigan State (18-3, 9-1 Big Ten) has had plenty of time to adjust to life without Langford, though there was always the thought it would get the versatile guard back. He was averaging 15 points a game, shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range and was one of the Spartans’ best perimeter defenders when he sat out the second half against Northern Illinois with what, at the time, seemed like a minor injury.
Instead, the injury turned long-term, forcing Michigan State to turn to junior Kyle Ahrens for more minutes while increasing its reliance on freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown.
Over the eight games Langford was out, the Spartans are 7-1, making it seem as though the loss didn’t have much of an affect. However, Langford was playing as well as he has since arriving at Michigan State in the fall of 2016.
“I think obviously (his loss) hurts,” ESPN’s Jay Williams said. “I was telling one of the assistant coaches that this year I was getting random calls from NBA scouts about Joshua. His game had obviously expanded, and it had gotten so much better.”
But life in the Big Ten doesn’t allow for a team to feel sorry for itself. Michigan State had the week off but welcomes Indiana (12-9, 3-7) for a 6 p.m. tip-off on Saturday, a game that includes the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay.
Getting back on track against a struggling Indiana team, which has lost seven straight, is critical.
“From a guy who’s been on a team before and you lose an important part of your team, it has to be next man up,” Williams said. “You have to have other guys willing to step up. Cassius is a leader of this team and yes, it is very unfortunate that they don’t have Langford on the court but still that serves as no excuse. Any player, anybody who says, ‘What could have been if we had Joshua,’ can’t think that way. Nothing against Joshua, but you need to focus on what you do have and make the best with what you do have.”
What the Spartans have is a team that has remained atop the conference, is among the most efficient teams on both ends of the court, and still has what it takes to be considered among the top teams in the nation.
With Ahrens likely to be back on Saturday against Indiana after missing three of the last five games because of a nagging back injury, the Spartans should stay in the thick of the Big Ten hunt with big games coming near the end of the regular season.
After that, the NCAA Tournament awaits, and many believe the Michigan State team that has been on the floor the past few weeks without Langford is good enough to go a long way.
“It’s hard to make a Final Four, though Tom has made it look pretty easy,” Greenberg said, referencing the seven trips Izzo has taken MSU on, the last in 2015. “It’s hard to make a Final Four. You need to be a little lucky, you need to have a player step up and have to have the right draw.
“But (Michigan State) has got an elite point guard, you’ve got a guy you can throw it into on the block (with Nick Ward). You’ve got some guys that can make shots. You have a style of play offensively that attacks and flows and is efficient. And then defensively, to me right now, Michigan State is playing like a form of what we’re calling a Virginia defense but a little more physical.”
Indiana at No. 6 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Indiana 12-9, 3-7 Big Ten; Michigan State 18-3, 9-1
Outlook: The Hoosiers enter the game having lost seven straight games while Michigan State saw its 13-game winning streak end on Sunday in a loss at Purdue. … Michigan State has won four straight games at home in the series with Indiana. … Freshman guard Romeo Langford is averaging 17.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game for the Hoosiers. Senior forward Juwan Morgan is second on the team with 16.4 points a game and leads the team in rebounding at eight per game.