Niyo: Spartans’ Langford rising to Izzo’s challenge

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State' Joshua Langford drives on Miami's Davon Reed on Friday night.

Tulsa, Okla. — There’s no hiding inexperience at this time of year. But there’s no hiding talent, either.

So this is why the coach gets angry and yells. And this is also why the player listens and nods.

Joshua Langford asked for this, remember. The second member of Michigan State’s vaunted 2016 recruiting class — a five-time prep player of the year from Alabama — was a bit different than some of the others in that respect.

“Very few times do you get recruited by McDonald’s All-Americans, or anybody for that matter,” laughed Dane Fife, the Spartans’ assistant coach. “But Josh wanted to come to Michigan State before we even offered him. Because he knew, in his mind, what was best for him. He’d done his research, he’d listened to others. And he’s really good at knowing what is best for Josh, and not just what’s the most ‘fun’ for Josh.”

Still, this was fun, though, as Langford played one of his best games all season Friday night, enjoying what head coach Tom Izzo called a “little coming-out party” as Michigan State began NCAA Tournament play with a 78-58 victory over Miami (Fla.) here at the BOK Center.

It was Langford’s play early in the second half that turned the game into a rout, as he scored nine of the Spartans’ first 11 points to build a 17-point lead. The first came on an offensive rebound on the opening possession, the next two on a pair of jumpers, and then Langford’s 3-pointer all but sealed the Hurricanes’ fate. All of that came after he’d gotten an earful from Izzo in the halftime locker room.

“Coach kind of challenged him that he wasn’t playing his best in the first half,” said Cassius Winston, the freshman point guard who also keyed the Spartans’ turnaround after an inauspicious start. “He knows what he’s capable of, we all know what he’s capable of. And he went out there and showed it.”

Another shot, please

He showed the all-around game that Michigan State coaches find so intriguing, and exasperating, at times, as Langford — set back by a nagging hamstring injury to start the season — has struggled to make a consistent impact throughout his freshman season.

Friday’s 13-point outing marked only the seventh time all season he scored in double figures, and just the third time he recorded 10 or more shot attempts. And Izzo actually was upset with Langford for not taking a few more Friday. (“God, I wanted to kill him,” he joked, “because he had a couple shots he didn’t look for, wasn’t ready to shoot.”)

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But the soft-spoken, easy-going southerner sounded just fine with all that. Not much seems to faze him, really. And that’s understandable, given his backstory, which includes a life-threatening bout with bacterial meningitis when he was 12.

You listen to him talk about spinal taps and IV drips and doctors warning of possible blindness or hearing loss and you start to understand where he gets his deep religious faith. You also realize why Izzo’s rants probably don’t — and won’t — cut too deep.

“Yeah, he did get mad at me,” Langford said, smiling. “And that’s a great thing about Coach Izzo. That’s why I came here. He’s gonna push you in all aspects of the game.”

He’s their Valentine

In Langford’s case, it’s his all-around game that’s going keep the coaches coming back for more. There’s a reason Michigan State’s staff often references Denzel Valentine as a comparable player for the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard.

“He’s farther along than Valentine was at this stage,” Fife said. “But I do think he’s got a lot of Valentine in him.”

But for now, that means what’s lacking in above-the-rim play — and Langford’s capable of more there — he needs to make up for in “proficiency,” as Fife put it.

“He’s got to be really good in every part of his game,” he said.

Coaches and teammates alike joke about Langford’s “old-man game,” but he does have a unique and diverse skill set, combining point-guard skills with a mid-range game that’s increasingly a rarity these days. He’s as comfortable shooting off the bounce as he is spotting up from 3.

What Langford is still learning, however, is something most young players struggle with early in their careers: How to bring it all the time. Some of that can be blamed on his conditioning. The hamstring injury he suffered before the season cost him valuable time last fall, and frankly, his high school career was full of similar injury issues. One year it was a wrist, the next it was a hand, and as a senior it was an ankle.

“I don’t know that he has been in great shape in a long time,” Fife said.

But at this point, it doesn’t matter. Not with Michigan State’s season on the line, it’s fate directly tied to the freshman’s performance.

“Josh has got a lot of things that he can do, so he isn’t allowed to disappear,” Fife said. “He’s not allowed to not have an impact on the game in some form or fashion. Because we know what he can do.”

9 Michigan State vs. 1 Kansas  

When: Sunday, 5:15 p.m.

Where:  BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.

TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 20-14, Kansas 29-4

At stake: Spot in Midwest Regional semifinals against Purdue-Iowa State winner. @JohnNiyo