With shooting guard Joshua Langford out since Dec. 29, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo is looking for someone to step up in the co-captain’s absence.
Though Langford is averaging 15 points in his 13 games started this season, Izzo would rather find a replacement to the junior’s on-court leadership as the sixth-ranked Spartans ramp up conference play through the end of the season. Izzo said after MSU’s 86-77 win, over then-No. 14 Ohio State, Jan. 5 the natural candidate is point guard Cassius Winston, the team’s leading scorer (17.7 points per game).
“Let’s face it, I’m trying to have Cassius do everything — coach the team, drive the airplane, hell of a deal,” Izzo joked of Winston after MSU’s road win against the Buckeyes. “I felt disappointed because of the lack of Josh you saw today, because he’s become a much better leader and that’s (what you’ve seen) with Cassius.”
Winston led MSU’s second-half comeback after a 12-2 OSU run near the end of the first half, during which the Spartans trailed by as many as eight points. Winston scored 18 points in the second half for a game-high 25 points. Since Langford’s three-game absence the junior is averaging 20.3 points and 59.4 percent shooting from the field in 33.3 minutes, all slight increases from his season average.
Winston said at a news conference Jan. 7 it’ll take a team effort to make up for the loss of Langford, who’s missed the last three games with a left ankle injury. Izzo said Langford’s status for the Jan. 13 game at Penn State (7-8, 0-4 in Big Ten) is still questionable. Langford first departed in the first half of No. 6 MSU’s 88-60 win over Northern Illinois on Dec. 29.
Izzo said Langford is continuing treatment on his ankle, and tests have showed no structural damage, but a clearer timetable will be known when it’s known how Langford responds to treatment.
“Everybody’s gotta step up a little bit more,” Winston said. “I just gotta suck it up and play a little bit more minutes, gotta win games, whatever you do to win basketball games.”
Along with Winston, Izzo has noted the importance of freshmen Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown. Shooting guards Henry and Brown have increased playing time since, combining for an average of 5.3 points in 26.0 minutes since Langford’s injury.
Loyer, a point guard, has been playing behind Winston. Loyer has been used in situations where Winston plays off the ball, or when a starting guard is on the bench.
“I’m just trying to move (Winston) around a little bit for a couple of reasons,” Izzo said. “One, because he’s really good at it and, two, to kind of bring him at people from a different angle, different side.
“(It also) would be to get him off the point a little bit. It doesn’t totally rest him, but it rests him a little bit, but he can make plays off ball screens and get shots a little easier that way.”
Winston leads the team in minutes (31) and assists (7.4) a game, and after a 23-point performance in MSU’s 77-59 win against Purdue Jan. 8, is shooting 49.0 percent from the field.
Izzo said he’s noticed a difference in Winston’s play, but still wants more.
“He needs me on his shoulder like one of those little devils that are on your shoulders with a fork,” Izzo said. “If I could just shrink a little more I could stay there. Because I told him, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing when you’re playing,’ because the hardest thing to do in the world is self-evaluate.”
Izzo also noted the road win against OSU brought out something different from earlier road games against Louisville and Florida, and was especially valuable experience for younger role players.
“Depending on what happens with Josh and how long he’s out, they become more and more important,” Izzo said. “This isn’t foreign soil. Yet, going on the road in the Big Ten is different than going on the road at Louisville or Florida. It’s just different.”
Four of MSU’s next five games are on the road, and with or without Langford, Izzo thinks a stretch like that may define MSU’s ability to reach its goals of another regular season conference championship.
“I’d say that January is a critical month,” Izzo said. “(But) we just have to take it one day at a time.”