Senior Joshua Langford’s sole mission: Get Michigan State into NCAA Tournament

To say Sunday afternoon will be bizarre for Joshua Langford might be an understatement.

When Michigan State hosts Michigan at the Breslin Center, it will be Senior Day, and Langford, technically, is a senior, the only one on the Spartans’ roster.

But there will likely be no Senior Day festivities. After all, only a handful of parents will be in the building, anyway. And, of course, there’s the fact Langford’s already done this, taking part in the Senior Day activities last season when Michigan State defeated Ohio State to win a share of its third straight Big Ten championship.

On that day, though, Langford’s left foot was still in a boot and he hadn’t played in a game in roughly a year-and-a-half, going through two separate surgeries on his left foot, the second coming on the eve of the 2019-20 season after Langford had started to resume practice with the team.

Michigan State guard Joshua Langford drives to the basket in the second half.

“It was tough on me,” Langford said Friday, reflecting on that early March night last year. “I wasn’t playing and I just never saw myself being in that position, coming out on my senior night in a boot. It definitely was challenging for me.”

At that point, four years into his college career, it seemed playing basketball was no longer Langford’s career path. A McDonald’s All-American from Huntsville, Ala., Langford arrived on campus in the fall 2016 as part of a star-studded class that included Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward. He was never supposed to take part in a senior day, let alone two. Many believed Langford had two years as a college player, at best, before heading to the NBA.

But progress was slow his first two seasons, leading to a third year at Michigan State, one that started with so much promise, with Langford looking like the All-American from high school. He was averaging 15 points through the first 12 games before sitting out the second half against Northern Illinois as a precaution. It wasn’t long after that it became clear he had a serious injury, one that required surgery. The lasting impression of Langford that season was him riding a cart around the Final Four in Minneapolis, his foot in that familiar boot.

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That was followed by a long summer of rehab and a return to practice in September 2019, only to eventually realize by October he was still hurting.

Another season lost. Another surgery.

It all led to Senior Day, 2020. Langford went through the postgame ceremony, fully believing that was it.

“At this time last year, I’d say it was 10-90 (percent) that he would play again,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “There was not much of a chance and he hadn’t even really made the decision until the summer that he was going to give it a real shot.”

He did, of course, and it proved to be a wise choice. Langford worked through the summer and was on the court when Michigan State finally began the season. And it wasn’t for a few minutes a game like Izzo had hoped. Instead, Langford has been logging heavy minutes all season. It hasn’t helped with conditioning considering he didn’t play for almost two years and he battled COVID-19 earlier this year, but it also proved Langford’s foot would hold up.

And now, at the end of his fifth season on campus, basketball is again a big part of Langford’s life and likely his future.

Michigan guard Eli Brooks tries to block a shot by Michigan State guard Joshua Langford in the first half.

“It’s unbelievable just to be able to be playing again,” Langford said. “Obviously, it might not be ideal the position I’m in, but at the end of the day I’m back playing and I have a second chance at playing the game that I love. So, regardless of the circumstances, I’m just going to give 110% because there was a point in my life I didn’t know if I would be able to put a jersey back on.”

It’s back on now, and outside of missing one game with COVID, it’s been full speed ahead for Langford. He’s averaging 28 minutes a game, roughly the same amount he was playing two seasons ago before he got hurt.

He’s had some big moments this season, too, helping the Spartans win big games last week against Illinois and Ohio State, thought admittedly, he’s been worn out through this stretch of games over the final two weeks.

“In terms of my health, I feel good,” Langford said. “Now it’s a matter of just managing and being smart about the things.”

The season has gone so well for Langford, the notion of perhaps another senior night no longer seems far-fetched. With the NCAA granting players another season of eligibility, Langford could come back for a sixth season, something that would have been a possibility anyway after missing most of two seasons with the injury.

Izzo left the door open, saying it’s possible another full, healthy season could benefit Langford as he tries to embark on a professional career.

“Those are some things that Josh and I and his mom and dad will talk about,” Izzo said. “But it’s been fun to watch him have some success going through it. It’s hard not to be proud of Josh Langford.”

Of course, Langford’s story is just a sidebar to what will take place on Sunday. Michigan State (14-11, 8-11 Big Ten) will be trying to bounce back from the 19-point loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor on Thursday, and in the process, be looking to strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume.

That is Langford’s focus.

“I’m just trying to focus in on where I’m at right now,” Langford said. “Especially with the way our season is going right now. It has to be all hands on deck. There’s no need to be trying to think about anything but the task at hand. So, that’s kind of where I’m at right now with it.

“All I’m really thinking about is doing the job for my team and just trying to get this win coming up on Sunday.”

In the end, that’s really all Langford’s ever worried about in his time at Michigan State. If he can help the Spartans win on Sunday, it might be a fitting departure. That said, it could also be a preview of what might still come.

Either way, few have impacted the program through will and perseverance like Langford.

“They say God only gives you what you can handle,” Izzo said. “I’m not sure many guys could have done it (like Langford) and I’m not sure anybody’s done it my career here. So I’d say he ranks right on top, to be honest.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau