WASHINGTON, D.C. — Joshua Langford laughs when he’s asked if he feels like a coach. He’s not a coach. He’s a player, even if he’s not playing right now.
A player that qualified for his first ever Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State’s 70-50 win over Minnesota last Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. When the second-seeded Spartans take the floor at 7 p.m. EDT Friday night against third-seeded LSU, he will be with the team.
The junior shooting guard has not played since Dec. 29 against Northern Illinois, when he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. He, along with redshirt junior forward Kyle Ahrens, out with a severe left foot sprain sustained March 17 against Michigan, have found a different way to impact the team without scoring points or grabbing rebounds.
“It’s exciting to be at my first Sweet Sixteen,” Langford said. “Just because I’m not in the jersey doesn’t mean I’m not a part of the team. I am a part of the team, so it’s really a blessing to be able to get a step further than I did my first two years here."
For the two wing players, both of whom have yet to play in the Sweet Sixteen in their careers, their focus has shifted to preparing their replacements — freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown.
“I just hold them accountable to what they’re gonna do,” Ahrens said of the freshmen. “If they’re lacking, whisper in their ear, ‘hey, you need to pick this up and get it going.’ They respect it, and usually respond.”
In the first half of MSU’s first-round victory over 15-seeded Bradley last Thursday, there was a sequence where Brown got an offensive rebound and then immediately forced a shot up, missing it. While assistant coach Mike Garland yelled at Brown about the decision to take the shot, Ahrens recalls taking a more positive approach, clapping and encouraging Brown.
“I let him know he's doing a great job crashing that board,” Ahrens said. “He could’ve made a better decision to pass that out, but (I) let him know to keep crashing like that, you’re gonna get more opportunities and you’re gonna know what to do next time.”
Langford lives with Brown, Henry and freshman big man Marcus Bingham Jr. He has become something of an older brother figure to the freshmen, particularly in terms of his faith. He leads weekly 90-minute Bible study sessions.
“There’s a lot more things in life than picking up a basketball, just being a part of that just shows what we’re all about,” Henry said. “It shows why I came here — to make more than friends or just teammates but to make brothers for a lifetime.”
Bingham calls Langford the “preacher” of their apartment.
To understand the importance of the two experienced wings, MSU coach Tom Izzo referred to a conversation during the Spartans’ off-day in between the first and second rounds. Junior forward Nick Ward is working his way back from a hairline fracture in his left hand suffered Feb. 17, and, despite playing in four straight games, didn’t feel like he was in the right headspace.
Izzo asked Ahrens, Ward’s road roommate, and Langford, voted a team captain by his peers at the beginning of the season, to talk to the talented big man about the mental grind of getting through an injury.
The conversation lasted over an hour in Ahrens and Ward’s Des Moines hotel room.
“What was so cool was I didn’t tell them what to say and I didn’t ask them what they said, but I could just tell it was a weight off (Ward’s) shoulders,” Izzo said. “What do they do for this team? A ton.”
Ward was asked about the conversation after practice Monday.
“They gave me words of encouragement, just saying, ‘stick the course,’” Ward said. “It’s my first time really having an injury … it helped a lot.”
Assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said Ahrens was the best communicator on the floor before his injury, and he’s carried that side of him to his new role on the bench, while Langford has mentored Henry in particular.
“I think both of those guys are unbelievable leaders and they mean a lot to our program,” Stephens said. “For the freshmen, especially, because they’ve been there and they know what’s expected of them every day, what coach wants out of them. Those guys are able to help (Henry and Brown) a lot. Usually, you’ll see one guy on one side with one wing and one on the other side.”
Izzo used a Magic Johnson catchphrase to describe Langford and Ahrens’ dedication to their teammates — “There’s nothing like being around the fellas.”
“I love those two guys, I don’t think I could do what they did,” Izzo said.
Henry has a solution he wishes could solve the injuries of his two mentors.
“I wish we could share legs, like when I come out and you come in, I take my legs off and give them to you,” he said. “Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.”
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