Michigan State Spartans

Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Joshua Langford finds new role amid injury and Michigan State’s Final Four run

Leave a comment

MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Izzo had seen enough.

His Michigan State team had botched its out of bounds defense, and he felt another voice was needed to get the Spartans locked in. So he turned to his injured star, Joshua Langford.

“I said, ‘Josh, it’s time for you to take over,’ Izzo recalled this week. “So if you watch him on the bench, whenever there’s an out of bounds play, he’s getting the guys ready.”

Out-of-bounds defensive coordinator has been the type of role that Langford has been relegated to since a foot injury ended his junior season in December. Then, it seemed as though Langford might be the key to the Spartans’ success as their best pro prospect, but Michigan State has rolled all the way to U.S. Bank Stadium and Izzo’s eighth Final Four as Cassius Winston blossomed into a Player of the Year Candidate and the Spartans became one of the best two-way teams in the country.

That’s left the 6-foot-5 Langford, who was averaging 15 points per game and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, to contribute where he can.

“I just try to stay involved with my voice, reminding the guys and encouraging the guys, try to make sure they know we’re a great team,” Longford told NBC Sports. “I jumped right into it because I’m a captain on the team. I was already talking and doing things like that. As soon as I was on the sidelines, I just went right back to doing what I felt like I should do for my team.”

Langford’s reaction to his transformation from star to sideline hasn’t been altogether surprising to his teammates.

“He’s been very positive about it,” fellow junior Nick Ward said. “He’s very optimistic. He’s just been helping us no matter his status with the injury.

“Josh is very optimistic and positive person.”

He’s also someone who craves hoops.

“Some guys like the game, some guys love the game, and some guys live the game. Joshua is a guy that lives the game,” Izzo said. “He’s become a quiet kid that became a great leader last summer, and he still leads. That kid has not missed one second of one practice the entire time he’s injured. Even when he rehabs, he either does it right there in front of him or he comes in. H

“We miss him, but we have kept him involved.”

That’s why you’ll see Langford barking directions when Texas Tech takes the ball out under the basket Saturday night.

“I just try to remind the guys to stay down and focus,” Langford said of his out-of-bounds responsibilities. “I don’t really do anything with the defensive schemes. That’s the coaches’ job. I try to remind the guys what our game plan is. I try to make sure they stay down and ready because most of the times teams score on out of bounds because they’re not prepared.”

Langford, though, is dialed in to not only what the Spartans have to do, but what they’ll see from their opponents.

“Just telling us to get down, the plays that they’re about to run,” Ward said. “It’s always good to have reminders.”

It’s also good to have a guy like Langford, even if he’s in a walking boot rather than a pair of Nikes.

“He’s going to be one of those guys that, when he leaves,” Izzo said, “I’m going to be sorry that he left.”

Michgian State’s Xavier Tillman is ready for his moment

AP Photo/ Mark Tenally
2 Comments

MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Tillman couldn’t quite believe it when he saw it. As he stepped out on to the floor, the Michigan State sophomore was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Tillman looked around U.S. Bank Stadium and tried to get a grasp of it.

“I’ve never been in anything like this before. We walked out there and everybody was kind of looking around like this is huge,” Tillman. “It was hard to even see the top of the stadium. I’ve never played in something this big.”

The stadium matches the stage, as well as the role Tillman has played for the Spartans over the last six weeks to help them get back to their first Final Four since 2015 and try to win Tom Izzo’s second national championship. The Grand Rapids, Mich. native has transformed from useful reserve to indispensable piece after taking over as starter following Nick Ward’s hand injury in mid-February.

“He plays his role to perfection,” All-American point guard Cassius Winston said.

That role was one the 6-foot-8 forward had to wait for, not just this season, but last. A four-star recruit coming out of Grand Rapids Christian High School, Tillman spent the bulk of his freshman season watching. He played just 305 minutes, rarely seeing the floor for more than just spot duty for a few minutes each game. Still, that was a role he tried to embrace.

“My freshman year when I didn’t play in any games, I was on the bench standing up, yelling. I was clapping. I was smacking the ground,” Tillman said. “Show as much energy as I could from the bench so whenever they looked over, they’d be locked in.”

Tillman went from spending most of his time on the bench last year to seeing much more action as a sophomore, but it wasn’t until Nick Ward broke his hand on Feb. 17, that Tillman emerged not only as a reliable replacement but a critical cog in Michigan State winning 14 of its last 15 to reach the Twin Cities and Izzo’s eighth Final Four.

He immediately put up numbers, going for 19 points and nine boards in his starting debut against Rutgers and followed that up shortly with double-doubles against Nebraska and Michigan. Despite the stats, though, Tillman was still trying to feel his way through his expanded role.

“I wasn’t comfortable,” Tillman. “In the moment you try to get comfortable, you try to lock in, but you’re always going to be a little shaky in the moment. When you look back on it, you can say, ‘OK, at this moment I made a mistake that I usually don’t make so I was probably a little nervous at that point.’”

Eventually, those nerves melted away as Tillman’s production rose down the stretch of the season. In his 12 starts, he averaged 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor.

“He’s stepped up a lot,” Ward said. “He’s been doing his thing.”

That thing was never better than when Michigan State needed him most. Sunday against Duke, the tournament’s prohibitive favorite, and Zion Williamson, the biggest force to hit college basketball in years, Tillman was at his best, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds while defending Williamson.

There were no more nerves. No more searching for comfort. Just production.

“You would think, this is a big game, you should be a little nervous,” Tillman said, “but I was really comfortable. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I’m living with all my results that happen on the court so now I’m just trying to win the game and play as hard as I can no matter how well I play or not.”

Tillman is a man who not only has settled into his role with the Spartans, but his spot in life. He’s the father of a 2-year-old daughter and will marry his fiance next month. It brings the perspective that allows him to thrive at a university that casts a shadow 70 miles across Interstate 96 from East Lansing to his hometown.

“Other than getting engaged, this has been the best decision I’ve made, for my family, just for myself,” he said. “Myself because I’ve gotten to compete against some really great guys that made me better, and formed me into the man I am today.”

That’s a man that will be vital for Michigan State as it looks to reclaim its spot atop college basketball after nearly a two-decade hiatus.

“We’ve come this far, might as well finish it,” Tillman said. “To be part of a program with such a winning history is already an honor. To make another mark with the history of this program, is just unbelievable. Hopefully we’re able to finish it out with another national championship and add to coach’s resume and start our’s as well.”

Final Four is set after memorable Elite Eight

Getty Images
1 Comment

The 2019 Final Four is set for next weekend in Minneapolis as the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was a memorable one.

After four memorable Elite Eight games, No. 1 seed Virginia will face No. 5 seed Auburn in one national semifinal with No. 2 seed Michigan State battling No. 3 seed Texas Tech in the other Final Four game on Saturday.

Falling in last season’s NCAA tournament to No. 16 seed UMBC, the Cavaliers figured things out to make the Final Four with a memorable overtime win in the South Region over No. 3 seed Purdue. Despite 42 points from Boilermaker junior guard Carsen Edwards, Virginia outlasted his 10 three-pointers with a flurry of their own from Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. And with the team needing a buzzer-beating bucket just to force overtime, big man Mamadi Diakite came through.

Virginia’s win will go down as one of the better Elite Eight games of the decade as Edwards became a March hero while the Cavaliers finally overcame some NCAA tournament demons.

Also winning an overtime game in the Midwest Region was No. 5 seed Auburn as they outlasted SEC rival Kentucky. Playing without Sweet 16 star Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL on Friday, the Tigers rallied in the second half to beat the Wildcats behind Bryce Brown and Jared Harper to make their first Final Four in school history. The Wildcats’ great season ends behind a strong game from P.J. Washington as he overcame a foot injury last week to end a memorable sophomore season with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

Texas Tech advanced to its first Final Four in school history as well with a win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday. In a close Elite Eight matchup in the West Region, the Red Raiders held off the Bulldogs with shot-making from Jarrett Culver and Matt Mooney while Gonzaga was held to 7-for-26 three-point shooting. Rui Hachimura (22 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points) both had strong games while Josh Perkins (16 points) committed a late out-of-bounds foul that sealed the game for the Red Raiders.

The final Elite Eight thriller saw No. 2 seed Michigan State outlast No. 1 seed Duke in the East Region. Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks) and Xavier Tillman (19 points, nine rebounds) both had big games for the Spartans as they limited turnovers to shock the No. 1 overall seed. The loss likely ends the college career of freshmen Zion Williamson (24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, three steals) and R.J. Barrett (21 points, six assists) as the Blue Devils fall short of the Final Four when many considered them a title favorite.

Between the four great games, two overtime thrillers, a buzzer-beater to force overtime and some big star performances, this makes a strong case for the best Elite Eight ever. We had a jaw-dropping Edwards performance in a losing effort, two blueblood programs (Duke and Kentucky) getting upset in close games and the final college game of the sport’s biggest star of the decade (Zion).

And that doesn’t even include Auburn and Texas Tech making the first Final Four in school history, Izzo’s finest coaching job and Winston’s heroics and Goins’ big shot. Virginia overcoming a shaky reputation and the Tigers overcoming the loss of Okeke to injury.

The first weekend might have been mostly chalk. The second weekend of the 2019 NCAA tournament was a great one as it culminated in memorable Elite Eight games and stars coming through in the clutch. It’s led to some unexpected Final Four matchups, but at least college hoops fans have plenty to talk about this week after some ridiculous games.

WATCH: Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman posterizes Duke

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman put down one of the better poster dunks of the 2019 NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight against Duke on Sunday.

Tillman drove to his right and threw down on Duke’s Javin DeLaurier, getting a memorable and-one dunk to push the Spartans lead to four during a tight second half. No. 2 seed Michigan State and No. 1 seed Duke are battling for the last spot in the Final Four in Minneapolis next weekend as the winner faces No. 3 seed Texas Tech.

Duke’s Cam Reddish a game-time decision in Elite 8 vs. Michigan State

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
1 Comment

Whether or not Duke will be missing one-fourth of its fantastic freshman class as it looks to return to the Final Four remains up in the air.

Cam Reddish, the Blue Devils’ third-leading scorer, will be a game-time decision Sunday in the Elite 8 against Michigan State with a knee injury.

“He’s getting treatment today. We’ve really not been on the court yet,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. “And after we stretch and — we’re not going to really do anything physical today; we’ve got to be careful. But just to see how he feels.

“If he’s progressed, we might try to get him to shoot. But we haven’t done that yet.”

The injury kept Reddish sidelined Friday as Duke narrowly got past Virginia Tech.

“He’s had a little bit of problem with his knee. It’s not structural,” Coach K said. “And a jumper’s knee, a tendonitis. I guess there are a number of different things. At different times it can inhibit you, or you feel pretty good and then you can play. Or you can work yourself through it. But yesterday we weren’t able to do that.”

Without Reddish, the Blue Devils shot just 30 percent from 3-point range while playing with a shortened rotation. Only Marques Bolden played more than 3 minutes off the bench.

“Definitely missing Cam out there,” RJ Barrett said Saturday. “It’s tough to have a game plan and then couple minutes before tip-off see that he’s out. But we’ve gone through so much adversity that we were able to step up last night. And just moving forward, whether he plays or he doesn’t, we’re going to have to give everything we’ve got.”

Reddish is averaging 13.6 points and shooting 33.3 percent from 3-point range this season. Duke had lost the only previous game it had played without Reddish – an overtime setback to Syracuse – before Friday’s victory.

Cassius Winston’s brilliance on full display as Michigan State returns to the Sweet 16

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Leave a comment

DES MOINES, Iowa — Starved for something to cheer for, the thousands of Minnesotans who made the trek a couple hundred miles south down Interstate 35 finally came to life. The Gophers they were there to cheer for, the program which was looking to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades, trimmed a 20-point lead against the Big Ten co-champs, the team that had destroyed them by 24 a month earlier, to nine points.

Seemingly everything other than the scoreboard seemed in Minnesota’s favor, and that looked suddenly in play.

“It got loud,” Winston said.

That’s when Tom Izzo told Winston to go to work.

“I told him he’s got to take over,” the Hall of Famer said, “and like a true All-American did.”

Instead of a superhero in a cape, the Spartans have a diminutive guard in a headband, though the results are largely the same.

Winston scored seven-straight points while recording two steals and a rebound in just over a minute to resecure the game for Michigan State and send the Spartans into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015’s Final Four run with 70-50 win Saturday against Minnesota at Wells Fargo Arena.

“You’ve got to make big plays. I’ve got to be who I am for this team. That’s my role for this team,” Winston said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all year. I don’t try to do too much. I don’t try to put the world on my shoulders, but I try to make plays to the best of my ability.”

The world may not have been on Winston’s shoulders, but the Spartans were on his back during that remarkable 82-second stretch that few players in the country could replicate.

An 8-0 run by Minnesota trimmed what had once been a 20-point Michigan State advantage to single digits, 40-31, with under 14 minutes to play in the game. After a Michigan State turnover, the Gophers had the opportunity to cut even further into their deficit, but Dupree Macbrayer’s jumper was off the mark, and Winston collected the rebound. On the ensuing possession as the shot clock dipped down, Winston connected on a step-back jumper.

He then picked off a pass from Gabe Kalscheuer, and hit another jumper on the other end. Next it was a deflection that lead to a fast break, where Winston pulled up in transition and buried a 3-pointer. Seven points in 57 seconds. A ballgame decided and a Sweet 16 trip to Washington, D.C. locked up in under a minute.

“That really killed us,” Gopher forward Amir Coffey said. “We had it going a little bit, and Cassius just came through for Michigan State and hit some clutch shots.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s what Winston has been doing for Michigan State all year. Whether it was a season-ending injury to Josh Langford or the  ailments that have sidelined Nick Ward or Kyle Aherns. Michigan State has time and again looked as though it faced a situation where its season could go sideways only to have Winston there to set the Spartans straight. The Big Ten player of the year has been tremendous, averaging 19.1 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from distance.

“That’s just typical Cassius. That’s just what he does,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute, whenever we need him to just lead vocally he does whatever we need him to do, and that was just another day in the park.”

That scoring outburst was exactly what Michigan State needed to shutdown the Gophers, and it was about all Winston could give the Spartans. The Big Ten tournament champions have played five games in eight days, and Winston has looked worse for the wear. Those seven points were more than half of what he scored for the game, finishing with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting (1 of 4 from 3) along with nine assists and four turnovers.

When Minnesota had its chance to truly threaten the Spartans, Winston found the strength, will, fortitude or maybe just a second wind enough to put a halt to it.

“He was hurting. He just was worn out. I said, ‘Well, here is the way it is, my man,’” Izzo said. “‘If you’re worn out you’ll get a lot of rest. If you’re not worn out you got another week or so and you’ll get a lot of rest any way. So how about we get after it and try to prolong this.’

“I just love the fact that he responded. He wouldn’t have responded like that two years ago if you ask me. He responded and I know how he felt. Yet I also know what he did. It was pretty impressive.”

It also put an end to the recent run of calamities for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. There was Middle Tennessee State in 2016 followed by a nine-seed season that No. 1 Kansas put an end to in the Round of 32. Last year it was 11-seed Syracuse that sent Michigan State home that first weekend.

For a program that has prided itself on consistent Final Fours, a run like that is grating.

“Amazing, to finally get over the hump,” Winston said, “get to that second weekend.”

Nearly as amazing as how Winston took a few dozen seconds to win a game and keep the Spartans on track to perhaps in a week retrace the path all those dejected Gopher fans were making Saturday night, north to Minneapolis.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images