Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid, Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston talk about the second-round matchup against the Orange on Sunday (2:40, CBS/760). Matt Charboneau
Detroit — When Joshua Langford came to Michigan State last season there was little doubt the McDonald’s All-American could score. He did plenty of that while being named player of the year in Alabama five straight years.
Where the 6-foot-5 guard was lacking on the defensive end. And at Michigan State, that doesn’t usually lead to lots of playing time. So, instead of being labeled as a one-way player, Langford went to work after his freshman season.
“What Josh is doing is trying to be a complete player,” Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife said Saturday. “Josh last year was a below-average defender and now he’s one of the best defenders in the conference.
“Offensively, he’s superb. He’s still improving but he is a great player. Bottom line, he is a great player.”
He proved that on Friday in Michigan State’s 82-78 win over Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Langford scored 22 points and was 7-for-8 shooting in the first half as the third-seeded Spartans advanced to take on No. 11 Syracuse at 2:40 p.m. on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena.
And the scoring was nice. After all, it had been missing for the better part of the last four weeks. It had some wondering if the player that scored a career-high 23 in a win early in the season over North Carolina was still there. If the Midwest Region opening-round win is any indication, he’s still in there.
That is music to coach Tom Izzo’s ears, who has always believed Langford could be a lot like former Spartan Gary Harris — an outstanding two-way player whose making millions in the NBA these days.
“He looked so much more comfortable and yet he did an unbelievable job defensively,” Izzo said. “That (goes back to) the first night when I recruited him I thought he could be the next Gary Harris. And last night was the first night when I saw it on both ends. He was very good defensively, very good offensively. And Josh is going to be a hell of a player. He's coming along great. He's improved a lot since the beginning of the year, more defensively than offensively, and now he's starting to catch up with his offense. It couldn't come at a better time.”
Early in the season, it seemed Langford was poised for a breakout. He scored 23 points twice and reached double figures nine times in the first 15 games. But as Big Ten play got rolling, that’s when the inconsistency crept into his game.
There were flashes along the way, like the 19 he scored to lead a rally at Maryland, but there were more nights like the 1-for-8 shooting game he had against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. But Langford insists he never let the ups and downs get to him.
“My confidence never really left,” Langford said. “I feel like have to stay focused in and understand that if tomorrow I miss the first two shots or the first three shots it’s not the end of the world. I still have to be aggressive, I still have to make plays for the team. The biggest thing for me is to make sure I stay locked in.”
There was a big reason he said he was able to stay locked in.
“I just felt like that’s what I put in the work to do,” Langford said. “I really never got down on myself. Sometimes I do, but for the most part I believed in myself the whole time because I know I put in a lot of work.”
Another solid night offensively could come in handy for Langford and the Spartans (30-4) as they prepare to face a Syracuse zone that causes opponents all sorts of problems. The Orange (22-13) held TCU — a team that was scoring better than 82 points a game — to just 52 points in their first-round win. They rank sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com and will force the Spartans to be patient.
And while getting to the middle of the zone will be critical, making shots will be, too.
“It’s making the right play,” Langford said. “Sometimes it may be attacking, sometimes it’s shooting the three. But it’s making the right play and understanding you can take the first shot at times and not second-guess yourself, moving the ball around the perimeter and taking care of it because they do get those steals from the wing.”
Getting another performance from Langford like the one he provided on Friday could go a long way toward the Spartans getting back to the Sweet 16.
“He was due for this type of game,” sophomore Cassius Winston said of Langford. “The amount of time he puts in the gym, his shot is going to fall. We knew it was coming. So, he picked the perfect time to get it going. We always are looking for him, always getting pin-downs. We trust him with the ball making those shots.”
Michigan State vs. Syracuse
Tip-off: 2:40 p.m. Sunday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: CBS/760 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State 30-4; No. 11 seed Syracuse 22-13
Next up: Winner advances to Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb.