Michigan State's Aaron Henry, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman talk about the loss of Joshua Langford to injury for second straight season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — With the news sinking in that Joshua Langford won’t be able to play until at least January, the reality now for Michigan State is how it replaces its senior guard.
It’s not like this is new territory for the Spartans, who forged ahead without Langford last season after just 13 games when Langford first left the lineup because of an ankle injury the eventually required surgery. But the roster looks different this season, meaning the problem of playing without Langford will require a different solution.
No. 1 Michigan State already was planning to slowly bring Langford back, meaning there would be some shuffling at the shooting guard position. The urgency of that shuffling just kicked up a notch as the Spartans are now less than two weeks from taking on No. 2 Kentucky to open the season in the Champions Classic.
The two simplest solutions at this point are rotating fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens and freshman Rocket Watts. However, each is dealing with their own injury problems. Ahrens suffered a sprained ankle in last week’s scrimmage with Gonzaga while Watts had been limited by an Achilles strain.
Ahrens should be back by next week, coach Tom Izzo said, while Watts was back at practice on Tuesday.
“I’m good right now,” Watts said. “There was a little Achilles tweak or something like that, but I’m healthy and ready.”
Watts, of course, would bring a dynamic offensive option to the lineup along with the fact he’s already one of the Spartans’ best defenders. But opening at Madison Square Garden against the Wildcats in a 1 vs. 2 matchup can be daunting for a freshman.
Ahrens, while not the offensive threat that Watts could be, is the veteran presence that would be perfect for some of the early big games on Michigan State’s slate. After Kentucky, MSU has games against No. 12 Seton Hall and No. 4 Duke and potentially a matchup with No. 3 Kansas in the Maui Invitational.
But the Spartans aren’t limited to just Ahrens and Watts.
Sophomore Aaron Henry is the starter at the three position with fellow sophomore Gabe Brown playing there, as well. Henry has played some at the two, with Brown at the three while senior point guard Cassius Winston likely will play off the ball some, too, as long as sophomore Foster Loyer can fill in at the one. Watts’ versatility also plays in to the options for Izzo, who now will try and dial in some sort of rotation by the time Michigan State hosts Albion for an exhibition on Tuesday.
“It’s one of the things where you don't sleep at night right now because it was just three weeks ago we said we have Cassius, Josh and Aaron — very solid three guys,” Izzo said, describing his starters. “And their backups were Foster, Gabe and Kyle, and then Rocket working into a bunch of different positions. Now we're trying to figure out who would start and who is best to come off the bench.
“That's what the next week will be for. But right now we still have three very, very good players in Cassius, Aaron, and Xavier (Tillman), and we still have some question marks at who plays the four — (Marcus) Bingham, (Thomas) Kithier, (Malik) Hall? And now we have a question mark on who will play the two, whether it will be Rocket Watts, whether Kyle will be back in time or whether we move Aaron to the two and Gabe to the three. Those positions are interchangeable for us.”
Henry finished last season strong and many believe he’s on the verge of a breakout season.
He might not be perfectly suited for playing the two, but he’s confident the Spartans will come up with the right combination.
“With (Langford) gone, it’s a huge piece missing on the court,” Henry said. “It hurts more as a friend and a brother more than on the court. But we have guys that are ready to step up and play bigger minutes and that’s what these next weeks are preparing us for. With this loss, it hurts all of us but we have to prevail.
“Me and Gabe, me and Rocket, different combos out there, just trying to get a feel for each other. It’s not the same experience as we had out there with Josh. … Knowing that we are not going to have him, we have to pick up the speed on a lot of things.”
There won’t be many teams around the country feeling sorry for the Spartans.
Even without Langford, the roster is deep and one that is good enough to win it all. Winston is a preseason All-American and arguably the best point guard in the country, while Tillman and Henry are next-level players.
If younger players assume bigger roles, Michigan State might not miss a beat and could get Langford back by sometime after the new year.
“I've got a bunch of guys left that are very good players,” Izzo said. “I’ve got three guys left that kind of led us to the promised land last year with some very good role players. We're going to circle the wagons around those people and not change any of our goals, any of our dreams, any of our expectations.”