The last time there was a Final Four, Michigan State was there. It may feel like 20 years ago, but it was less than two when the Spartans' run ended in Minneapolis at the hands of Texas Tech's maniacal defense. In the dejected but still hopeful locker room, Xavier Tillman reflected on all the team had accomplished and how they'd done it without their best player.
Looking around, it was unclear who he was speaking about. Tillman himself is now a meaningful contributor for the Memphis Grizzlies. Cassius Winston may be the best guard not named Magic Johnson to dribble up the court in East Lansing. Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins were senior contributors who had played their guts out and left a mark.
Who, then, had elevated themself to the top of the food chain in his mind?
Joshua Langford. The five-time high school player of the year in Alabama whose injury struggles at the college level have been a study in setback and whose contributions have been a study in faithful perseverance. The opinion was backed up by the next two or three players. In a crowded field, Langford was on another level.
On Tuesday night, with his last chance to play in the NCAA Tournament barely flickering amid the darkest of Spartan seasons this century, the 6-foot-5 graduate student elevated his play and his body to new heights. He attacked the glass like Dennis Rodman, securing a career-high 16 rebounds in a lopsided upset victory over Illinois. He added 13 points, a block and two steals in a blistering 36-minute display fueled by heart and desire.
“To think that in October, we didn’t think [Langford] could play,” Tom Izzo said postgame, “and in November, we just hoping to get 15 minutes a game out of him.”
It was a glimpse of the player who stepped onto campus fully formed with poise and a devastating understanding of the mid-range jumper. Langford's game is both effective in 2021 and would be right at home in the 1970s. Pull-ups from the elbow. Rip Hamilton-like fadeaways. Even with full use of his athleticism, to watch him was to watch someone who deep down, you just knew will be lighting up pickup games for 40 more years. Put a basket out there and he will find it with a timeless, time-tested move.
Langford came to Michigan State in a freshman class that included Miles Bridges. Just thinking about how long ago that seems can make a person feel like Rose at the beginning of Titanic. He's worked his way back through two leg surgeries, and spent more time than anyone should in a walking boot. For two years he was resigned to watching from the bench, leading the team an emotional capacity instead of physical.
His return to the floor this year has been workmanlike if not entirely efficient. The Spartans' offense has been largely a failing work in progress and Langford has been tasked with doing entirely too much. His 39 percent shooting is reflective of someone working his tail off for even a fleeting look at the hoop.
And before last Saturday, this MSU season has been an unmitigated disaster, derailed by high-profile departures, COVID, and a stacked Big Ten. But down 10 in the second half to Indiana, with NCAA Tournament hopes all but extinguished, Langford scored eight straight points to key a feverish comeback, finishing with 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
It was just a warmup for Tuesday night, when the Spartans finally clicked on all cylinders to dispatch the first Top-5 team in a stretch run as difficult and as filled with opportunity a team desperate for quality wins could ever ask to see. Ohio State comes calling Thursday night, then very winnable games against bubble-adjacent Maryland and Indiana loom before a season-ending home-and-home with Michigan.
The chances are there and, finally, the Spartans seem capable of seizing them with a pared-down and newly focused rotation. Langford has emerged as every bit the on-court leader Aaron Henry has pined to be and somehow tapped into a gear previously unseen.
Whether fueled by desperation or defiance, there's a fire burning. Just how prolific was the rebounding display? Langford almost tripled the total of Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, who stands eight inches taller and weighs 80 pounds more than the surgically repaired guard.
Langford, who outplayed everyone in his home state while still an eighth grader, is potentially embarking on a stretch where he outplays everyone younger than him to save a season, preserve a streak, and stake his claim as the best player on Michigan State's roster.
And if not, certainly the most respected.