Michigan State Basketball: Who can be the X-factor in March?

Michigan State basketball has gotten production from multiple players since Eron Harris went down with injury, but can any of them be relied upon in the postseason?

While I played devil’s advocate last week in listing the reasons Michigan State could have trouble getting into the NCAA tournament if it lost the rest of its games, it’s hard to see the Spartans not make it. Their resume is as good or better than most near the bubble, no matter what happens in the Big Ten tournament. But how far can they go and who will lead them?

Must Read: MSU Basketball: 5 bold predictions for Big Ten Tournament

A patented Final 4 run seems unlikely, but the same was said two years ago. We’ll get a decent idea of what this team can do in the conference tournament. A loss in the first game would hamper just about everyone’s expectations, while a loss in the semifinals would have fans hoping for at least an appearance in the Sweet 16.

Of course, getting to the second weekend won’t be easy in the NCAA tournament. At this point, we know Miles Bridges and Nick Ward are going to play huge roles, per usual. The problem is the rest of the team. Those two combined for 40 points in the loss to Maryland, yet the rest of the team had just 20. Without third or fourth options scoring at a consistent rate, this team will always be susceptible to an early exit, no matter the tournament. So let’s try and find out which of the Eron Harris replacements can step up when it matters.

Alvin Ellis III

  • Nebraska: 28 mins, 7 points, 1-of-6 FG, 0 3Pt, 6 Reb, 2 Ast, 3 TO
  • Wisconsin: 15 mins, 2 points, 0-of-2 FG, 0 3Pt, 1 Reb, 1 Ast, 2 TO
  • at Illinois: 35 mins, 15 points, 6-of-10 FG, 3 3Pt, 3 Reb, 1 Ast, 3 TO
  • at Maryland: 36 mins, 4 points, 2-of-5 FG, 0 3Pt, 3 Reb, 4 Ast, 0 TO

Joshua Langford

  • Nebraska: 27 mins, 17 points, 5-of-12 FG, 1 3Pt, 5 Reb, 0 Ast, 3 TO
  • Wisconsin: 25 mins, 9 points, 4-of-7 FG, 1 3Pt, 4 Reb, 1 Ast, 2 TO
  • at Illinois: 20 mins, 7 points, 3-of-4 FG, 1 3Pt, 1 Reb, 1 Ast, 4 TO
  • at Maryland: 15 mins, 3 points, 1-of-3 FG, 1 3Pt, 1 Reb, 0 Ast, 0 TO

Matt McQuaid

  • Nebraska: 15 mins, 2 points, 1-of-3 FG, 0 3Pt, 5 Reb, 1 Ast, 0 TO
  • Wisconsin: 28 mins, 15 points, 5-of-9 FG, 1 3Pt, 2 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 TO
  • at Illinois: 25 mins, 6 points, 2-of-4 FG, 1 3Pt, 2 Reb, 1 Ast, 1 TO
  • at Maryland: 27 mins, 0 points, 0-of-2 FG, 0 3pt, 1 Reb, 0 Ast, 0 TO

When looking at these numbers (at least for Langford and McQuaid), it’s kind of obvious why Michigan State lost its last two games. Langford and McQuaid did absolutely nothing offensively in the two losses. Going back to Tom Izzo’s coaching decisions, he believed it was better for them to have McQuaid on the court against Melo Trimble than Langford. In turn, McQuaid did little offensively, scoring zero points in 27 minutes, which was about everything in a buzzer-beater loss.

Mar 1, 2017; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Alvin Ellis III (3) shoots during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center. Illinois beat Michigan State 73 to 70. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The first player in question is McQuaid because he’s easily the least trustworthy of the bunch, no matter what Izzo thinks of his defensive skillset. McQuaid has had a few solid games this season, but there’s a trend to most of them: he only scores when the Spartans win. Outside of the Purdue game (when he had 11 points because they were down by 10-plus the entire way and he made a last-second layup), McQuaid only scores when Michigan State wins.

Those things aren’t correlated in a good way, at least from the naked eye. When MSU has a lead, McQuaid is much more willing to force things offensively. When losing, he’s usually too timid to make a mistake, which goes hand-in-hand with how Izzo coaches. If you make a mistake, you usually sit on the bench unless you’re the best player on the team. And so, that’s how McQuaid finished with zero points and only two shots attempted against the Terrapins. No, MSU can’t count on McQuaid to lead it to the Sweet 16.

Langford is next in line and has been the most troubling to watch. At times, his mid-range game looks automatic and he’s the best three-point shooter on the team. While he’s done more over the last month, he’s still extremely inconsistent.

However, he’s player that MSU needs to pick up his game in the postseason. With his ability to shoot and get to the hoop, Langford is probably the third-best offensive threat on the team. Cassius Winston is obviously in the conversation, but he’s more of a creator, while Langford is the better shooter and finisher. Langford’s main thing may be to play better defense so he sees more time than McQuaid on the floor.

And finally, there’s Ellis, who had one of the worst Senior Day games imaginable with two early turnovers and foul trouble the entire way. But he’s been through worse in his career. With Harris out, there has been a number of times when Ellis was the second-best scorer on the floor, which isn’t something that’s happened often. The only reason MSU kept close with Illinois in the second half was because he went on a mini run of his own and finished with 15 points. But those kinds of runs are what give him more defensive attention, in turn taking help off Bridges and Ward.

Every Michigan State fan knows that Ellis turns the ball over a ton, but his willingness to take contested shots and actually create things offensively is why he’s more important than McQuaid. The two seem like opposite players at times and while it’s great when McQuaid hits shots, it’s usually to extend a lead.

When Ellis is forced into action, it’s because the Spartans need something else offensively. And unless McQuaid turns into the player he was against Wisconsin when he made some of the most ridiculous shots of his college career, then he’ll simply be considered a shooter that doesn’t make 40 percent of wide-open shots.

So for the postseason, there’s one thing that could see the Spartans advance further than expected and it’s not Bridges or Ward. We know what we’ll get from McQuaid and we know Ellis will continue to do Ellis-like things. But we don’t know what we’ll get from Langford. When he shows he deserves to be on the court, he’s the third-offensive threat on MSU that defenses can’t deal with. But if he has more games like the Maryland loss when it felt like he didn’t deserve to be on the court, then the Spartans won’t get to the weekend in the Big Ten tourney or the second weekend in the NCAA tourney.

If Langford can fill the X-factor role, the Spartans could surprise plenty over the next couple weeks.