MSU coach Tom Izzo talks about the 62-52 win over Rutgers on Tuesday. Matt Charboneau
Piscataway, N.J. — Nick Ward’s playing time has been a hot topic around Michigan State basketball ever since the beginning of last season.
As a freshman, Ward averaged 13.9 points, the second-best on the team. However, he played 19.8 minutes a game, fewer than six other players on the roster. The reason, more often than not, was because of Ward’s struggles covering ball screens and the consistent foul trouble he found himself in.
Now nine games into his sophomore season, Ward’s minutes have still been sporadic, as his defense has continued to be an issue. In Sunday’s win over Nebraska, it was foul trouble as Ward scored 22 points in 16 minutes but committed four fouls.
In Tuesday’s 62-52 victory over Rutgers, however, Ward played just 11 minutes, seeing the floor for only 1:11 in the second half. Fouls weren’t the issue – he didn’t commit one against the Scarlet Knights – but according to coach Tom Izzo, the defense is still a problem.
“Him and Cassius (Winston) I thought started out poorly and we challenged them at halftime,” Izzo said. “They just didn’t respond the way we wanted so we didn’t start them (in the second half). No big deal.”
“We’re back to not guarding the ball screens. (Winston) wasn’t getting over and (Ward) wasn’t guarding them, so we struggled on that.”
And the notion of making it a big deal didn’t sit well with Izzo.
“Don’t start a fistfight or a quarterback controversy,” Izzo said. “He’s been really good. The last two weeks he’s been as good as anybody. So no, no, no, don’t do that. I had enough people talking about Miles Bridges only scoring 15 points the last four games. If anybody did their homework they’d see he only played a certain amount of minutes and he’s playing on a bad ankle.
“So, this is what happens when teams are good. Everybody starts picking them apart and what’s wrong with this guy? Hey, he had a bad game. He didn’t play good. He’s been playing very good and other than being in a little foul trouble he’s been playing very good and he just didn’t respond very well tonight.”
Ward, who finished with three points and five rebounds and what was officially 11 minutes, admitted he was frustrated while he sat during the second half. Game footage showed players celebrating on the bench late in the game while Ward sat.
“I’m good now,” Ward said. “Fine now. I’m in a better spot.”
He didn’t sound, however, like he was buying the critique of his defense.
“Let’s break it down,” Ward said. “Can you guys name a big that killed me this year? Can you name a big that scored over eight points on me this year? Have I fouled out of any games?”
At that point, the interview was done.
“Everybody has those types of games,” Bridges said. “It’s our job as his teammates to pick him up.”
Bridges scored a season-high 21 points, attacking the basket but really getting going from long range. He was 5-for-11 from 3-point range, matching the five he made this season in the loss to Duke.
“Miles looked more like Miles,” Izzo said.
That’s because it’s likely the first time Bridges felt 100 percent after spraining his ankle a couple of weeks ago. He missed one game and didn’t start in another, but he’s slowly been getting back to his usual self.
“Yeah, for sure,” This is the most healthy I’ve felt. I didn’t have anything bothering me. I just want to make the right plays for my teammates.”
Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. had eight blocks in the win over Rutgers, matching a single-game record at Michigan State, which was established by Ken Johnson on Dec. 29, 1984 against San Diego State.
“I didn’t even know I did it,” said Jackson, who added 11 points and four rebounds. “It’s eight so hopefully I can get nine at some point because I kind of want it.”
The eight blocks did set a freshman single-game record, surpassing six Deyonta Davis had on Jan. 28, 2016 against Northwestern.