Spartans will need more team efforts to make NCAAs

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There’s little debate. For Michigan State to be good and have any chance at making any sort of postseason run, it needs its best players to be just that.

Miles Bridges needs to do everything, as he did Tuesday in a 74-66 win over Ohio State. It wasn’t spectacular, but 17 points, 11 rebounds and a couple of blocks is the baseline for the outstanding freshman. He’ll get that or more on most nights or Michigan State will be in trouble.

The Spartans also need Nick Ward to continue to be a force in the post and they need Tum Tum Nairn to keep pushing and prodding his younger teammates with his leadership, even as he is limited offensively.

But in reality, this team that will use 11 players on most nights, needs everyone. There was no better display of that than in the win over the Buckeyes. The stat sheet was full of them.

Freshman guard Cassius Winston had eight points and nine assists, highlighted by finding Bridges on a break for a reverse dunk in the second half, a pass likely only he could make. Sophomore Kyle Ahrens, being forced to play out of position most of the season because of injuries, played only 10 minutes but hit a huge 3-pointer late in the game to stem an Ohio State surge.

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And then there was Joshua Langford, another freshman who has gone through the definition of an up-and-down season, soaring through the air to dunk a missed jumper in the final minutes and essentially take the wind out of the Buckeyes.

“The offensive rebound,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of Langford’s dunk when talking about the contributions from so many. “I said he’d be a Charlie Bell, a Jason Richardson, Gary Harris, all of the guys that did such a good job in that position. I spent a lot of time talking to him about it in the last three weeks. I can see him starting to come on. He’s starting to do a better job. He’s getting better defensively. He’s going to be a hell of a player because he’s smart, he works and he cares. … Kyle Ahrens has been playing a little better. He’s the one guy that can shoot the ball. So if we get Miles some minutes with him, that was good. We had a lot of role players. Cassius did a lot of great things. He struggled defensively, but he had nine assists and three turnovers so we’re still growing in that area but it’s getting better.

“I think the guys knew that we had a grind-it-out game. The locker room, they felt good about that. That’s how it’s going to be for us.”

It’s the sort of contributions Michigan State (16-10, 8-5 Big Ten) will need down the stretch as it looks to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume and still possibly finish in the top four in the Big Ten race. But the one wild card that could be the difference between an OK finish and something out of nowhere is Alvin Ellis.

The senior was outstanding on Tuesday, making his first five 3-pointers and finishing with six for 18 points. He did the same thing in the conference opener at Minnesota, scoring a career-high 20 to lead his team to the overtime win.

The points are great, and if they start to come more consistently, it could be a huge lift for the Spartans. But Ellis brings more than that. He brings the experience of a player who has seen it all in his four years and isn’t about to let it end.

“There were times that I questioned Alvin Ellis,” Izzo said. “What I thought he did for two years is not what you need to do to play at this level. Last year, he started playing a little better and this year he had the one thing that this team doesn’t have a lot of — he’s tough. He’s a tough kid.”

That’s clear to his teammates, too. A player who once couldn’t seem to get out of his own way both on and off the court is now who the team looks to for direction.

“Alvin, he’s really starting to lead this team,” Bridges said. “He has a different sense of urgency, it’s a different level. You can just tell he really wants to win and go out right.”

Ellis isn’t looking for all the applause. He’s content knowing he is giving Michigan State everything he can at this point and he understands that toughness he has is something this team needs.

“That’s the way I am and how I play,” Ellis said. “I try and bring it every time I step on the court and have it try and rub off on the guys who don’t have it as much.”

If it comes Saturday at Purdue, it would be welcomed by Izzo as the Spartans look for an upset of the bigger, more physical Boilermakers.

“Any time a kid goes through tough times, this day and age when everybody transfers, quits their job, gets a new job, change here, change there, go to three high schools, four AAU teams, all of the things,” Izzo said. “It might be a heck of a deal for him and a great way to go out as a senior, so I’m happy for him and proud of him and excited.”