By: Will Burchfield
Joshua Langford was honest on Friday night, unafraid to lay it out there after redeeming his recent struggles with a 22-point performance in Michigan State’s first-round win over Bucknell. He was vulnerable in a way brought on by self-assurance.
Did frustration ever set in for the sophomore over the past month or so, when he kept shooting and kept missing, when his teammates kept going to him and he kept letting them down?
Of course it did.
“I mean, I’m human,” Langford said softly and from the heart.
“But at the same time, I just tried to lock back in and focus on what else I can do to help this team, because I’m not just a scorer,” he added. “I know I can do different things on the court and I knew that the work I put in would start showing. And it did.”
Ask Langford’s teammates and they’ll tell you: No one spends more time in the gym than their starting shooting guard. When his shooting mark dipped to about 38 percent over Michigan State’s final five regular season games, bricks begetting bricks, Langford stayed in the place that held the answers.
Then the Spartans went east to Madison Square Garden for the Big 10 Conference Tournament, and Langford went further south. He made three of 14 shots over two games. In his team’s bitter loss to Michigan, he scored a measly two points.
When the Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor, Langford returned to the gym. He had two weeks to turn things around prior to the NCAA Tournament. He didn’t waste them. Leading into Friday’s game, Tom Izzo said Langford was one of the Spartans’ best players in practice over the previous week.
Then he came out and sunk seven of eight shots in the first half, going tit for tat with Bucknell star Zach Thomas and keeping the Spartans in front. From mid-range, Langford was lethal. It’s always been his bread and butter, and he sliced the Bison like a hot knife over the first 20 minutes.
Bucknell coach Nathan Davis was actually pleased with his team’s defense in the first half. The Bison forced Michigan State into the kind of shots they were comfortable giving up. Langford just kept doggone making them.
“Those pull-ups,” Davis said, made weary by the memory.
This is what makes Langford such a dangerous player, not to mention the potential X-factor for Michigan State this March. He can render an opposing team’s best effort irrelevant. Remember, prior to the start of his slump last month, Langford was averaging 13 points per game, second best on the team.
His shot seemed to abandon him in the games that followed, but Langford resists the notion that he ever found it.
“I feel like in order to find something you have to lose it. I don’t feel like I really lost my shot,” he said. “I just feel like there were just times when the ball wasn’t going in.”
That’s a shooter’s faith. And it was maintained, in large part, by a defender’s resolve.
“I think throughout the whole time I really tried not to let my offense dictate my defense, because I’m not just an offensive player. I can do things on the defensive end,” Langford said.
He proved that as well on Friday, helping limit a trio of Bucknell guards to a combined 15 points. The Spartans held Bucknell to just 21 second-half points prior to a late three-point barrage that would prove academic.
“We just locked down and defended,” Langford said, and he spoke on this topic with as much pride as he did on his lights-out shooting.
“That’s the type of player he is, he played both ways tonight,” said senior Tum Tum Nairn, who knows a thing or two about tenacious defending. “He has been a two-way player for us all year, and I’m proud of him for that.”
The only blemish on Langford’s night was a dubious technical foul he was assessed late in the second half for something he said to the officials. Izzo was incredulous at the call — “I’ll go to my grave saying there’s no way,” he said — and Langford himself said the explanation he received didn’t really add up. It’s not like he’s one to mouth off.
“He hasn’t said a word since he’s been on campus,” said Izzo.
Langford smiled. “I got plenty of techs in high school,” he said.
There was that openness again. There was that sense of security. Langford has earned the right to feel comfortable, just as he deserved a night like Friday. The Spartans will need more of them to make their way through a tournament that’s already been turned upside down.
Deep within Little Caesars Arena, Langford sat in a chair in the Pistons’ locker room, occupying the stall that typically belongs to Stanley Johnson. As he addressed a few reporters, Jaren Jackson Jr. pretended to fawn over him for affect.
Langford was characteristically unfazed. Asked if he felt like an NBA player, he smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah. Definitely. But I gotta win a championship first.”
If his team does so, he’ll be a big reason why.