EAST LANSING — A different energy surrounds Michigan State basketball right now, one forged on two words, according to Joshua Langford: Connected and attitude.
The first, coming from Tom Izzo and the rest of the coaching staff, is clear.
Extra passes to set up shooters returned after going missing for two months, igniting the team’s scoring ability. So did a transition offense that has sputtered all season.
Defensive cohesion evolving rapidly with a smaller lineup that frustrated two of the Big Ten’s best players all Tuesday night.
Langford and Aaron Henry elevating their play and bringing role players along with them.
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And as No. 4 Illinois discovered Tuesday night, MSU’s connectivity changed its attitude. A physical tenacity and mental toughness — at least for one night — harkened back to some of Izzo’s most successful teams. Those ones that started the 22-straight NCAA tournament streak the current Spartans are fighting to keep alive.
Michigan State guard Joshua Langford talks to Illinois guard Trent Frazier during the second half of MSU’s 81-72 win at Breslin Center in East Lansing on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Veterans Langford and Aaron Henry brought the fire and leadership. Freshmen Mady Sissoko and A.J. Hoggard infused toughness. Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser emerged from hibernation and displayed renewed confidence. Izzo mixed them all together in an 81-72 victory over the Illini that blended the desperation of the moment with the depth and production MSU appeared to have back in the first month of the season.
“We kind of wanted to build off of our Indiana win, and I think we did an unbelievable job of just trying to continue to be locked in and continue to be connected and have a solid attitude, regardless of what we see,” said Langford, who grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds with his 13 points. “We all know that basketball is a game of runs, it’s ups and it’s downs. And so the greatest teams that play the game, they are teams that know how to be steadfast and be concrete and not be moved by outward situations.”
Whether it is too late to swirl into something special remains to be seen.
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The Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten) host No. 5 Ohio State at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN. That is followed Sunday with a trip to Maryland, a home game next Tuesday with Indiana, then back-to-back games with No. 3 Michigan — in Ann Arbor on March 4 and at Breslin to close the regular-season March 7.
Yet the marquee win over the Illini (16-6, 12-4) makes it four wins in the last six while bumping MSU up six spots in the NCAA’s NET Rankings to No. 75, now with three Quad 1 wins in 11 tries. And the Spartans are beginning to rediscover their mojo with those five grueling games ahead in the next 12 days that Izzo knows gives his team at least a chance to continue to bolster its resume for the NCAA tournament committee in the final few weeks before selection Sunday on March 14.
“We haven’t done anything yet, but we have played better in all but the Iowa game in the last four or five games,” Izzo said. “A long way to go yet, we all know that. A tough task ahead.”
Langford did plenty in his 36 minutes, providing a sense of urgency with the days winding down in his five-year MSU career. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound shooting guard, conscripted into playing some point as well had 11 points and 13 rebounds to help the Spartans to a 36-26 halftime advantage. It was his second career double-double and his first since he posted 18 points and 10 rebounds vs. Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 11, 2018, shortly before his first of two foot injuries that cost him a season and a half.
“Josh has been through a lot, and he can still play,” Henry said. “I never questioned him, nobody in that locker room or in the Breslin Center questions that. … When he has a performance like this is not new to me. I’m (boxing) my man out, and Josh is just flying over everybody just coming in and grabbing rebounds on both ends of the floor. I’m just like, ‘Damn, like, what?’ He’s just flying over everybody.”
Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) high fives teammates after scoring a basket to force Illinois calling a timeout during the first half at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Perhaps Langford’s biggest contribution as the team’s only senior is his mentorship of Rocket Watts. The 6-2 sophomore continues to ease into playing more point guard after saying he didn’t want to play there in December, but Watts has had Langford and Henry begin to help control the offense as he develops as a lead guard. On Tuesday, Watts snapped a nine-game streak of scoring in single digits by scoring 15 on 5 of 11 shooting.
“I feel like for me, the word connected is talking to my teammates a lot in practice, just trying to find their game just get everyone game,” said Watts, who added five assists over 31 minutes. “I’m just talking to then and trying to build a bond and practice and off the court. And I feel like Josh is playing a big role in that. He’s becoming he’s becoming a big leader right now, and he’s bringing everyone together.”
Henry continues to thrive in playing the power forward role in MSU’s “small ball” lineup, which made its starting debut against the Illini with Watts, Langford, Gabe Brown on the wing and Julius Marble II down low. The 6-6 swingman Henry scored 20 points and is averaging 19.3 a game over his last seven.
But it was a well-rounded performance. Eight Spartans scored, eight grabbed at least a rebound, and eight handed out at least one assist. And Hauser shook his funk to score seven of his 13 points in the final 2:55 as Illinois tried to rally one final time.
“I liked the way we were playing,” Henry said. “We were playing good defense, we were sharing the ball, the ball was moving. We were locked into the to the scouting report and the preparation that the coaches put before us.
“I’m kind of just frustrated that we haven’t been playing like this all year, honestly. And it’s tough to look at it like that. But, damn, we played good tonight.”
That included two tone-setting plays from the rookies. First, Hoggard got in the face of Giorgi Bezhanishvili after the 6-9 Illinois forward delivered a hard foul on Hauser with 29.4 seconds left in the first half. Then with 4:08 remaining and the Spartans running short on big men, Sissoko delivered a two-handed hammer foul on Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu that was called a Flagrant-2 foul and got the MSU freshman ejected.
However, those message-sending plays showed the Illini – who have rallied behind Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn all season – the Spartans would not be intimidated by a highly ranked team chasing a Big Ten title.
Referees separate Michigan State guard A.J. Hoggard (11) from Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams (20) and forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) during the first half at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said before the game his players used to say MSU was the toughest team in the league until recent years, as he built his defensive-minded culture to get his players feeling they wrestled that crown from Izzo’s program. Senior Trent Frazier, however, felt the Spartans showed their hunger and will to win regardless of their record.
“Coaches stressed a lot that we were getting a hungry pitbull,” said Frazier, who led the Illini with 22 points. “They practice with football pads, that’s the thing everyone hears about Michigan State. We knew what we were getting tonight. Grant it to them, they just punched us in the mouth.”
Said Langford, “That’s what we wanted to come out and do. But we’re not too much into compliments right now. We can’t be patting ourselves on the back.”
Dosnumu and Cockburn combined for 30 points but on just 11 of 29 shooting, working for everything they got against the Spartans’ defense that swarmed on the perimeter and in the paint. MSU’s assertive play may have led to 34 free throws for the Illini, but Cockburn went just 3 of 11 at the line and Dosnumnu 4 of 8.
Everyone was quick to point that it was just one game. It likely didn’t salvage the NCAA streak, but the way it transpired for a second straight game after winning Saturday at Indiana gives the Spartans another building block to the next five games.
Their focus almost immediately flipped to Ohio State. Henry summed his and his team’s game-by-game, day-by-day approach right now.
“I don’t play games to score points. I don’t play games to pass the ball, rebound, defend. I play games to win,” he said. “And whatever sport it is, whatever competition it is, I never, ever, like losing. It’s never sat with me.”
Contact Chris Solari: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball shows connectivity, attitude for NCAA hope
Published: 2021-02-24 15:31:44
Tags: #Michigan #State #basketball #blended #connectivity #attitude #NCAA #hope #afloat