DETROIT – Michigan State may have been going into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed, but Spartan fans had their questions based on the team’s recent performance.
Can Cassius Winston defend elite point guards?
Will Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward stay out of foul trouble?
Would Josh Langford get his jump shot working again?
But most importantly: could Miles Bridges take over for a full 40 minutes?
Those final two questions were answered with a resounding “yes” in Friday’s 82-78 first round victory over No. 14 seed Bucknell (25-10 overall). In front of a heavily green-and-white crowd in Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, the Spartans pulled away in the second half and held on after a late Bison run cut the final margin to four.
The Spartans (30-4 overall) found success early from a sophomore coming off a poor stretch during the month of February. Josh Langford, while remaining in the starting lineup at shooting guard, largely went quiet in the closing moments of the season.
Langford went a combined 3-for-14 in the Big Ten tournament, struggling to hit his trademark midrange, three-pointers or layups. Questions were even raised among Spartan faithful as to whether or not his starting job should be handed to backup Matt McQuaid.
He responded with a vengeance Friday, hitting seven of his eight shots before the half to lead the Spartans with 15 points on their way to a 44-40 halftime lead.
“The biggest thing I was trying to focus on was just trying to help my team win, and that was on the defensive end, not just on the offensive end,” Langford said after tallying 22 points for the day. “And my team did an unbelievable job finding me.”
One of the Spartans who benefitted from Langford’s hot start was point guard Cassius Winston. He had six assists in the first half and 10 for the day.
“When Josh is hitting shots, my assists… they skyrocket up a lot,” Winston said, laughing. “He was due for this type of game. The amount of time he puts in the gym, his shot is going to fall. We knew it was coming.”
As the Bison began to key in on Langford’s perimeter game after the break, another Spartan sophomore took over to power the Big Ten regular season champs forward.
Miles Bridges had a decent first half, hitting four of his six shots on his way to 10 points. But he flat-out went off in the second half, scoring 19 points after the break on his way to 29 on the day.
“We went to him, the players wanted to go to him,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “But he wanted the ball, too.”
Bridges had the highlight of the day midway through the second half. After Nick Ward missed a baby hook with 9:54 to play, Bridges crashed the boards hard and slammed in the rebound over Nana Foulland to extend the Spartans’ lead to 10.
“I kind of figured that Nick was going to miss it when he was off balance,” Bridges said of the play that brought the crowd to its feet, “so I just wanted to get it off the rim.”
After the first half ended, Bridges admitted that his Hall of Fame coach was unhappy with his star’s play, saying he “wasn’t playing like an All-American.” Izzo agreed with Bridges’ recollection.
“I did get on Miles,” Izzo said. “I got on him at halftime. But, boy, we started running some stuff for him and he started answering the bell, one after the other, and the tip dunk kind of typified it.”
Langford went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in the second half to ice the game for the Spartans. Bucknell went 5-for-6 from beyond the arc in the final 1:18 to eat into the lead, but Langford’s clutch gene kicked in just in time to send the Spartans to the second round.
With the win, Michigan State’s attention quickly turned to a hot Syracuse team playing unlike a No. 11 seed. The Orange have won two tournament games already, emerging victorious in a play-in game with Arizona State and upsetting No. 6 seed TCU Friday night.
Although a team with a history in the tournament and a well-known zone defense like Syracuse can cause problems for a highly ranked squad, the Spartans know the value in what they found in Bridges and Langford during their “tale of two halves” contest with Bucknell.
“That speaks volumes about how deep our team is,” Langford said, “and it’s something that we’ve always talked about since the beginning of the year, how good our depth is. Anybody on the team can get going, and it just speaks a lot about the team and how unselfish we are as players.”
Tipoff for Sunday from Detroit is estimated for 2:40 p.m. ET. The game will begin exactly a half hour after the conclusion of Purdue-Butler.