Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the injury to Nick Ward, and where the Spartans go from here. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing – It took less than 30 seconds for Tom Izzo to be clear about the situation Michigan State finds itself in less than 24 hours after Nick Ward had surgery to repair a fracture in his left hand.
“I hope everybody here feels bad for Nick, but to be honest with you I don’t want anybody to feel bad for us,” Izzo said. “That’s just the nature of the beast, the way it goes. I’m not gonna tell you next man up and this and that. I’m gonna tell you we’re gonna have to adjust as a team.
“The margin has shrunk for the errors. We don’t have any, but our expectations for victory haven’t changed one iota.”
No, the expectations rarely change at Michigan State. And for a team tied for first place in the Big Ten with five games to play in the regular season, that makes perfect sense.
The reality for the Spartans, however, is they’re likely going to have to find a way to get it done without two of the three best players on the roster now that Ward is out for an indefinite amount of time after suffering a hairline fracture in his shooting hand during Michigan State’s victory over Ohio State on Sunday. Coupled with the fact the Spartans have been playing without guard Joshua Langford since late December and the margin for error has disappeared for a team that has Final Four expectations.
And that might be the optimistic view. With two of the final five games against Michigan — the Spartans head to Ann Arbor on Sunday — finding a way to grab a piece of the conference title has become exceedingly difficult.
Beyond that, any tournament hopes — Big Ten or NCAA — rest on when Ward might be able to return. There’s no firm timetable on that, so, until then, the Spartans work on finding a way to make up for Ward’s 15.3 points and seven points a game.
“You know what? We’re gonna use the whole damn team,” Izzo said, “and we’re gonna have some fun doing it.”
Fun is an interesting way to look at it, and it likely doesn’t describe the psyche of the fan base these days. However, there isn’t much of a choice for the Spartans.
The easiest move is increased playing time for freshman Thomas Kithier. He’s been solid in shorter stints at various times this season, including on Sunday when he played 10 minutes, scored a bucket and grabbed three rebounds.
MSU's Nick Ward talks about his injured hand, which required surgery and will keep him out at least for a few weeks. The Detroit News
Those short bursts of playing time are about to change dramatically for a player who missed his entire senior season at Clarkston because of a transfer battle that didn’t go his way. Kithier intends not to put too much pressure on himself.
“It’s just kind of like the next man up mentality,” Kithier said. “It sucks with Nick going down, but Nick will be back soon, so I’ve got to try to help the team as much as I can. I’m not gonna be as good as Nick with the stuff he does. I’ll show some stuff, but I will try to do the best I can
“(The key) is not to overthink it. Stay off social media and see what other people are saying about you. I don’t notice or think about it until after the game and the moment hits you. Other than that, you get in the game and run up and down the floor a couple times, you get your feet under you and it’s just another basketball game.”
Kithier spent a solid 30 minutes after practice ended on Monday along with fellow freshmen Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry and Foster Loyer walking through various offensive and defensive scenarios with the assistant coaches. Walk-on Braden Burke also joined in as the Spartans began to prepare for life without Ward.
All could see increased roles. Kithier already has along with Henry while Izzo said expect some shuffling that leads to more expectations being put on Brown and Loyer.
Just as important, though, is how much players in the current rotation can help make up for Ward’s absence. From Cassius Winston to Kenny Goins to Xavier Tillman, getting just a little more from each is what Izzo emphasized with the team during a Monday morning meeting.
“I think all of our guys this morning understood that I don’t need Cassius to go from 19 to 28 points, I need Cassius to go from 19 to 21 maybe,” Izzo said. “I need another guy to go from 10 to 12, I need another guy to lock down a little better and hold their opponent that’s averaging 15 to maybe 13. There’s a lot of ways you can come up with the 15-point differential, and the rebounding differential.
“Is it gonna be easy? No, things haven’t been easy around here. We’re just gonna keep the same path, only maybe learn from the past and try to figure out.”
The Spartans understand they’re being counted out at this point, but they also feel they can handle it after already dealing with Langford’s absence as well as injuries to Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens this season.
MSU's Thomas Kithier, Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Cassius Winston on the loss of Nick Ward. The Detroit News
“That’s kind of the attitude now,” Tillman said. “As far as Josh’s injury, everyone was down about it because he worked so hard. With Nick it’s, ‘Here goes another thing, another obstacle in our way.’ So we’re just doing our best, working with the freshmen now more off the court, more on film so they can be ready too to take up these minutes.”
Added Goins, “We’re all ready, ready for the challenge. We all saw it as more adversity and just another reason for people to doubt us, but we’re ready to step up.”
They’ll get the first chance to prove it on Wednesday against Rutgers, then it’s on to the first-place matchup everyone has been waiting for all season.
“We’ve found a way before, so we’re gonna find a way again,” Izzo said.