Michigan State a ‘different team’ when Nick Ward is ready to roll

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State forward Nick Ward drives against Ohio State forward Kaleb Wesson during the second half of MSU's win on Jan. 5.

East Lansing – Nick Ward isn’t trying to hide it – playing Ohio State means a little more to him.

If his recent play is any indication, that’s good news for No. 11 Michigan State as it prepares to put its two-game win streak on the line at home Sunday against the Buckeyes.

“It’s always motivation going against the school in the state I’m from,” Ward said after a recent Michigan State practice.

Forget in state. Ward happens to be from Gahanna, Ohio, and his home is a little more than a 10-minute drive from Value City Arena, where the Buckeyes play. In his first two seasons, that trip ended in misery for the Spartans center who put too much pressure on himself and played two of the worst games of his career.

All that changed this January when Ward provided overwhelming evidence of how much he’s matured in his time at Michigan State, scoring 21 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots in the Spartans’ 86-77 victory.

“Nick was good though in everything he did down there,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He was our most solid player. He was up on the ball screens, he did his job rebounding, did his job defending. It was one of Nick’s better games and hopefully that means he’s focused in on what he’s got to do. But Nick has been very good these last two games and will continue to be good.”

The last two games – wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin – were a return to form for Ward as he played more like the player that controlled the game in the last meeting with Ohio State.

During Michigan State’s three-game losing streak, Ward had tailed off. He scored nine points in the loss at Purdue followed by 11 points and six rebounds in the loss at home to Indiana. That led to Izzo pulling Ward from the starting lineup at Illinois where Ward scored 11 but had just one rebound.

Nick Ward

That, it turns out, was the point where things had to change.

Izzo bristled at the notion Ward was in his “doghouse,” instead saying the lineup switch came after talking to Ward and was used simply as a motivational tool.

It worked as Ward responded with 22 points and nine rebounds against Minnesota and perhaps his most complete game at Wisconsin. He had just 12 points, but Ward grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots while making life difficult for Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.

“It’s consistently doing what he does well and what he does well he’s really, really good at,” Izzo said. “When he runs the court, you saw it a couple of times at Wisconsin, he was off the charts. When he steps up on ball screens we’re a different team. When he gets the ball on the post and he makes free throws … the chore is to be consistent with those things and I think he’s getting more consistent and once in a while there is a relapse of forgetting what got him to where he is good.

“So quit running, yeah I’ll tell him he’s got to run harder. It doesn’t necessarily put him in my doghouse.”

Ward's numbers show how valuable he is to Michigan State’s success.

He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, which is tied for 10th in the Big Ten, while his 60.9 percent shooting is fourth in the conference. But it’s the other things that have helped, as well. As Izzo pointed out, the Spartans (20-5, 11-3 Big Ten) are far better when Ward runs, and his defense has taken huge leaps this season.

He was effective in limiting Happ but will have a completely different challenge on Sunday against Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson.

“It’s actually a little easier, in the aspect of Happ is head fake, spin move, head fake, stuff like that,” Ward said. “Kaleb Wesson is heavier, so I have to take a different approach to him than I would Happ. So we got a game plan for him.”

Wesson still got his in the first meeting, scoring 25 points. However, he fouled out, not a big shock considering Ward is third in the nation, drawing 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes.

There’s little doubt it will be the matchup to watch once again. Ward and Wesson have been going back and forth with each other since middle school, so don’t expect that to change on Sunday.

The Spartans also aren’t expecting anything different than what they’ve been getting from Ward.

“He takes us to that whole other level,” guard Cassius Winston said. “He’s a handful down there, draws lot of attention and us other guys get to find our spots easier.”

It doesn’t always mean Ward ends up with more points or more rebounds, but his evolution into a complete player that will contribute in every aspect of the game has made him a valuable as any player on the roster.

“Nick’s in maybe the best place he’s been in since he’s been here,” Izzo said. “Some of that came from failure, some came from success an some came from learning the difference between the two.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Ohio State at No. 11 Michigan State

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Ohio State 16-8, 6-7 Big Ten; Michigan State 20-5, 11-3

Outlook: Ohio State had won three straight before Thursday’s loss at home to Illinois. … Michigan State has won the last five meetings at the Breslin Center. … Ohio State is 10th in scoring in Big Ten games and has failed to reach the 60-point mark in each of the last two games while Michigan State leads the conference in field-goal percentage defense (.483) and scoring margin (+10.6). … Sophomore Kaleb Wesson leads the Buckeyes in scoring (14.5 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg).