New and improved Nick Ward keeps shining through for Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State forward Nick Ward drives to the basket against Iowa on Thursday night.

Nick Ward has grown up a lot in the past year.

It’s the natural progression of a 21-year-old navigating his way through college, learning from the choices he makes along the way – some good, some bad.

The fact the Michigan State junior had done so in the public eye as a member of one of the top basketball teams in the country makes it all the more fascinating. That’s because in his first two years with the Spartans, it hasn’t always been a smooth road.

There were the difficult nights in Columbus in each of his first two trips, trying to do too much just minutes from his childhood home. There were frustrating nights of silly fouls and crumbling to double teams and, of course, the game at Rutgers his sophomore season where he spent most of the second half on the bench as he and coach Tom Izzo figuratively butted heads.

But through it all, Ward continued to show his value, a proficient offensive player who provided a matchup problem for most opponents.

It’s led to this season, one that is good again numbers-wise – he’s averaging 16 points and 7.1 rebounds a game while shooting 63.2 percent from the field – but is remarkable in the glimpse into Ward’s journey. Time and again this season he has shown how far he has come handling adversity, and this week was just the latest example.

After going scoreless for the first time in his career in Monday’s victory over No. 19 Maryland, Ward responded with 21 points and 10 rebounds in Thursday’s win at No. 16 Iowa, going 7-for-10 from the field and making all seven of his free throws.

“I had to make up for the last game,” Ward said. “I tried to stay out of foul trouble, play as hard a defense as I can without fouling. Yeah, I had to make up for last game.”

In the past two seasons, the last game would have deflated Ward, left him frustrated and unable to move past the disappointment.

Not anymore.

“He just keeps his composure a lot better than he would have,” teammate Cassius Winston said after the Maryland game. “I think the last couple years, if he didn’t get a shot, he would’ve taken bad shots, forced some things, stuff like that. Now, he just lets the game come to him.”

It came to him on Thursday as Michigan State used a 24-2 second-half run to turn what looked like it was going to be its first conference loss into another easy victory as the Spartans (18-2, 9-0 Big Ten) knocked off Iowa, 82-67.

Ward was critical in keeping the Spartans within reach early in the second half from the free-throw line then joined in as the decisive run began.

“I’m more pleased with Nick than the other guys because after a little bit of a slow start he started making some good passes out of there, he didn’t get frustrated,” Izzo said. “Nick’s got to get back to running that lane so there will be some work, but he’s got to get down there because we got him the ball early before they can double and we can do that if we get back to running.”

Michigan State will need to keep running as it concludes at stretch of four of five games on the road with Sunday’s trip to Purdue (13-6, 6-2).

The Spartans rolled over the Boilermakers in the first meeting, 77-59, on Jan. 8. Ward scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds in that game and he’ll again be counted on to provide offensive punch on the block.

As is often the case, staying out of foul trouble will be critical for Ward. It’s what led to his scoreless game against Maryland and it caught up with fellow big man Xavier Tillman on Thursday. But thanks to Ward’s response, it didn’t keep the Spartans from winning.

“We just keep fighting,” Ward said. “No matter how good or how bad it’s looking, we keep fighting the whole game.”

The next test for Michigan State comes against a Purdue team that has won four straight since its loss in East Lansing while guard Carsen Edwards has gotten going again. The junior guard scored a season-low 11 points against the Spartans but poured in 36 the next game, a win at Wisconsin.

Edwards is leading the Big Ten in scoring at 24.7 points a game and will put plenty of pressure on a Michigan State defense that is the best in the nation in field-goal percentage defense.

“He’s done a better job but we haven’t faced Michigan State,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I think Michigan State did a really good job on him, but he also had some decisions and some shots he’d like to have back.”

The Boilermakers’ only loss in the last eight games was to the Spartans and Painter understands the challenge his team faces against the Big Ten’s first-place team.

“They’re the most physical and toughest team in the league,” Painter said. “But what they do that is different from some people is they put a lot of intelligence on top of it. They’ve got a great point guard who makes great decisions. They’re efficient offensively, efficient defensively.

“Things can change (from the first meeting). That doesn’t mean they will. We have to make better decisions for them to change. If we don’t make better decisions things won’t change.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

No. 6 Michigan State at Purdue

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 18-2, 9-0 Big Ten; Purdue 13-6, 6-2

Outlook: Michigan State won the first meeting this season, 77-59, in East Lansing on Jan. 8. It was Michigan State’s second straight win in the series. … The Spartans have lost their last two games at Mackey Arena. The last victory came in 2014, 94-79. … Purdue’s Carsen Edwards is tied for fourth in the nation, averaging 24.7 points a game. Since the 1992-93 season, only two Big Ten players (Purdue's Glenn Robinson, Michigan State's Shawn Respert) have averaged at least 24 points per game in a season.