DETROIT — The first time Tom Izzo saw Josh Langford play, he envisioned Gary Harris.
Friday night, Izzo saw Langford embody the comparison to Harris, his former standout who was a first-round pick of the Denver Nuggets in 2014. It wasn’t just the 7 shots that Langford made in 10 attempts, although the 22 points the sophomore guard scored in Michigan State’s 82-78 win against Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament certainly stood out.
It was everything.
“[Friday] night was the first night when I saw it on both ends,” Izzo said Saturday. “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. And it couldn’t come at a better time.”
Langford 4-5 start, hits MSU's first 3. 23-12. 11 made buckets, 9 assists for Spartans. #BallMovement
— Kevin Goheen (@CincyGoGo) March 16, 2018
The Spartans, 30-4 and the No. 3 seed in the Midwest, face No. 11 Syracuse (22-13) Sunday at 2:40 p.m. ET at Little Caesars Arena. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb., against No. 2 Duke.
Big expectations, big learning curve
Langford came to Michigan State in 2016 as a McDonald’s All-American, an honor he shared with Miles Bridges. He and Bridges were part of a freshman class that included point guard Cassius Winston and Nick Ward. Izzo never had a recruiting class ranked as high as this one that was No. 3 in the 247Sports composite rankings, but with it came along high expectations for the group and for the players individually.
It’s been an adjustment for Langford.
“You have to come in and realize that you have to get better every day and nobody is looking at the accolades you have coming into college,” Langford said. “I feel like all of us that are now sophomores, we’re better than last year. All of us have bought into getting better at our weaknesses, really try to put our own egos aside and help the team.”
Langford’s greatest improvement has been on defense.
“Hands down,” he said. “I just think my whole defensive repertoire has gotten better. Last year, I had the ability to but I didn’t buy in as much. This year, I’ve bought in completely.”
Langford is averaging 12 points per game, and Friday was the third time this season he has topped 20 points. The Spartans are 18-1 this season when he scores in double figures, but prior to Bucknell, Langford had been in double figures just once in seven games. They won all six games when Langford had less than 10 points.
“What Josh is doing is he’s trying to be the complete player. Josh last year was a below-average defender. Now he’s one of the best defenders in the conference,” said assistant coach Dane Fife. “Offensively, he’s superb. He’s still improving but he’s a great player. That’s the bottom line.”
Bridges calls Langford the team’s X-factor, but it comes back to his defense.
“He runs the floor better than anybody on the team,” Bridges said. “His defense is really what helps us this year.”
It was his shooting, however, that was noticed against Bucknell. Langford was 1 of 3 on 3-point attempts but hit a variety of midrange jump shots. They were shots that Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said the Bison wanted Michigan State taking. Langford made them pay. He spent the week layoff following the loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals working on that jump shot and his shooting form.
“My confidence never really left. I just feel like I have to stay focused in,” Langford said. “Understand that if I miss the first two shots, it’s not the end of the world. I still have to be aggressive and I still have to make plays for my team. I think the big thing for me is I have to stay locked in.”