East Lansing — Nick Ward insists he doesn’t have a favorite when it comes to anything his mom, Stephanie, whips up in the kitchen for him.
As the Michigan State junior said on Thursday after the Spartans went through film study and a walk-through, “That’s how I got big.”
The familiar smile spread across Ward’s face. The 6-foot-8, 245-pounder is a bit more svelte than when he first arrived in East Lansing as a freshman, but that hasn’t changed the fact that getting to head home is still something special.
That’s what Ward is preparing to do, essentially, as No. 8 Michigan State travels to Ohio State to take on the 14th-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday. Ward is from Gahanna, just minutes away from Columbus, and while he won’t get to spend the night in his own bed, he’ll still get some home cooking.
“My mom will probably bring something to me at the hotel,” Ward said. “Whatever she makes, I love it. There’s so many things, I can’t think of (a favorite). Anything of Momma’s. I need Momma’s meal before the game.”
Anything Ward can use to make this trip home a memorable one, he’ll take. That’s because the first two journeys to Value City Arena haven’t gone well for the former Division I All-Ohio honoree as a senior at Gahanna Lincoln, where he averaged 21 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.
As a freshman, Ward scored nine points on 3-for-7 shooting in Michigan State’s five-point loss. Things were even tougher last season as Michigan State gave up a late first-half surge that turned into a double-digit loss. It all came as Ward missed his only shot of the game, marking the only time in his career he didn’t make at least one field goal in a game.
Ward insists there are no lingering frustrations as the Spartans (12-2, 3-0 Big Ten) hit the road for a stretch that includes five of seven games away from home.
“I feel great. I just take it as another game, a big game for us,” Ward said. “It’s just a business trip. Even though I’m back at home, it’s a business trip and we need to come out with the win.
“I take every game the same. This one is a little more because my family is gonna be there and stuff like that. But you know what? I approach every game the same way.”
If Ward’s approach produces the results he’s been piling up through 14 games this season, then it should be a heck of a homecoming. Coming off a 21-point first half in Wednesday’s win over Northwestern, Ward is averaging 16.4 points a game to rank 12th in the Big Ten. His rebounding is down a bit at 6.4 a game, but it still ranks 14th in the conference and his 65.9 percent shooting percentage is fifth-best in the Big Ten.
Those numbers aren’t that different from the ones he put up the past two seasons. So, what is the key to avoiding a drop-off on this trip to Ohio State?
The consensus from his coach and teammates is simple — being mature enough to handle the emotions he’ll be feeling out on the court.
“There’s a lot of emotion, maybe some pressure,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “All type of things, pride, that can take you away from your focus. But he’s matured a lot, grown a lot so he’s gonna be locked in.”
The key will be making sure Ward follows his own advice and not putting too much on himself. As he said, play it like any other game.
“I have no problem guy being too jacked in a way, until it’s a detriment and not a positive,” coach Tom Izzo said. “When it becomes a negative instead of a positive that happens sometimes. I said in all the years I’ve been here I’ve seen very few Scott Skiles. Scott Skiles, it was the madder they got, the better he played. Ninety-five percent of people aren’t that way. (Mateen) Cleaves had a little bit of that in him. You’ve got to be mature enough to handle that, and I think Nick will do a better job. He’s much more prepared now than a year ago.”
Ward will have his hands full going against Ohio State’s 270-pound Kaleb Wesson, but the Spartans feel they’ll have an advantage with the way Ward has been running the floor as well as how effective he’s been in the post against different defensive schemes.
“Nick will have to do a better job than (against Northwestern) at running the court and wearing him down,” Izzo said. “They don’t have tremendous depth with the bigs, but every day is gonna be different. They’ll double him then dig off him. Everybody has got scouting reports and all the coaches in this conference are good coaches, and they’ll try different ways to get to different guys.”
If Ward can handle what the Buckeyes throw at him, it could be just the finish Ward has been looking for the past few years during his homecomings.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”