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"We have to make sure our offense doesn't dictate our defense," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News

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East Lansing – Nick Ward grew up right down the road from Ohio State, so needless to say, the Michigan State big man feels plenty motivated when the Spartans are playing the Buckeyes.

They’ll square off Sunday in Columbus, and the sophomore is hoping for a far better performance than the one he had last season as a freshman. In that game last January – a 72-67 victory for Ohio State – Ward struggled, trying to stand out in front of the hometown crowd. He scored nine points but turned the ball over three times, including a costly one in the final minutes.

“I wouldn’t say I was trying to prove anything,” Ward said after practice on Friday. “I was just trying to play extremely hard and last year I didn’t let the game come to me. I have to let the game come to me.”

He’s been doing plenty of that lately for the top-ranked Spartans. Entering Sunday’s game between teams tied atop the Big Ten standings, there might not be a player on the Michigan State roster that is playing any better than Ward.

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week has scored in double figures in each of the last seven games and is 38-for-44 from the field in the last four games.

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“Confidence, really,” Ward said when asked what the key has been in this stretch. “I have confidence in my myself, confidence in my teammates and confidence in the coaches.”

There’s been a big change in Ward from last season and a significant change since he was benched for most of the second half at Rutgers on Dec. 5.

He’s been on a tear ever since thanks to greater maturity.

“He’s grown a lot in the last year,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “Just looking at the things he’s doing differently, he’s working hard and a lot more focused and you can see the results.”

That work and focus has made him the Spartans’ most consistent offensive player. He’s added a mid-range jumper, one he displayed in the win over Maryland on Thursday, and maintaining his focus on a return trip home will be critical.

“That’s exactly what I mentioned to him today,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I said, ‘Now we’ve seen how much you’ve grown, are you able to play the game and understand the situation?’ It was ridiculous last year, but at the same time maybe I wasn’t in his shoes.

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Michigan State's Nick Ward talks about Ohio State and his own evolving game. Cassius Winston discusses Ward's improvement. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News

“So it’s part of the growing process and I think you’ll see a different Nick. I think you’ll see a different Nick in the way he handles things this time because he has been pretty damn consistent, and that’s what we’ve been looking for.”

Ward says he’s learned to be more mellow this year, not allowing his attitude to change even when things aren’t going well. And he understands there will be plenty of focus on him as he makes another return home, hoping to improve on last season.

“It means a lot because I live 10 minutes down the street from Ohio State,” Ward said. “It will be a big game for me with my family and friends coming.”

It will be big, too, for the Spartans (15-1, 3-0 Big Ten), who play their second true road game, one that happens to be a battle for first place as the Buckeyes (12-4, 3-0) are one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten this season.

“Anytime someone has the No. 1 team and goes somewhere it’s gonna be double Fourth of July and Christmas,” Izzo said. “They’re excited about that team and should be, so everybody will be jacked up for a team that’s playing at a high level right now and a team coming in ranked high. I think it’s gonna be hopping.”

And if the Spartans expect to win their 15th straight and remain perfect in the Big Ten, it will take another solid performance from Ward.

“He doesn’t have to prove anything,” Izzo said. “He’s done enough where people know he’s a good player and I think we’ll see a different Nick. I think he’s matured a lot from last year to this year. He’s continually maturing and hopefully what he is excited about is playing there and not having a negative chip on his shoulder.”

No. 1 Michigan State at Ohio State

Tip-off: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 15-1, 3-0 Big Ten; Ohio State 12-4, 3-0

Outlook: Michigan State has won six of the last seven meetings. … The Spartans made a season-high 16 3-pointers in the win over Maryland and Ohio State is eighth in the Big Ten in 3-point defense (.341). … Michigan State enters the game with the best field-goal percentage defense in the nation (.331) while Ohio State is third in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage at .490.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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