East Lansing — Tom Izzo is looking forward to getting after Nick Ward again.
Yes, the Michigan State coach yells at his players, and sometimes they yell back. That’s how it works for the Spartans, especially, as Izzo pointed out Monday, when there is a trust between player and coach.
But Izzo’s eager to get after the 6-foot-9 center because he hasn’t been able to for the last three weeks, as Ward sat out with a broken hand, limited to only shooting drills and working on his conditioning.
All that changes now as Ward is set to be back in the lineup when No. 6 Michigan State opens play in the Big Ten tournament on Friday in Chicago.
“I do expect Nick to play,” Izzo said Monday at his weekly news conference. “How much? I don’t know. He’ll practice a little more today. It won’t be totally live, but it will be some live play to see how he responds to that and then we’ll know more (about) down the stretch. But like I said, I’m 99 percent sure he’s gonna play, unless there’s a setback.”
Much of that playing time likely will be determined on how Ward’s conditioning has held up since he last played on Feb. 17, a win over Ohio State in which Ward injured his left shooting hand late in the first half.
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He’s been on the sidelines since, but it didn’t take long after surgery to repair the hand that Ward was back in the gym. From shooting to running on the treadmill and going through various drills, Ward has been working toward this return.
“He’s not gonna be in as good a shape, but he has been running and working out; it’s just different than playing,” Izzo said. “That will be interesting to see today. Then it’s how they pad that thing and how it works, and he’s had some opportunity to look at it.
“We’ve got four days and it will all be good for Nick. I know Nick is chomping at the bit. I think he’s gonna be very important for us to have back, No. 1 with his scoring ability down there and, No. 2 our bodies. We need bodies. Kenny (Goins) is going 37 minutes a game and Xavier (Tillman) about the same thing, and I’m not sure that’s healthy, especially if you’re trying to win three games.”
Once everyone is comfortable Ward is ready to play again, as it appears they are, the next move for Izzo and his staff will be how they work Ward back into the rotation.
Ward started all but one of the first 26 games of the season and was averaging 23 minutes a game. Since then, Tillman has moved into the starting lineup with his playing time jumping significantly. Before Ward’s injury, Tillman played 30 or more minutes in a game twice. Since Ward went out of the lineup, Tillman has played 30 or more minutes in four of five games, including 33 in Saturday’s victory over Michigan.
On top of that, Goins has continued to play heavy minutes, sitting only 1:22 of the Michigan game as the Spartans have relied more on freshman Thomas Kithier to spell Tillman and Goins. In that game, Ward pushed Izzo at halftime to let him suit up against the Wolverines, a move Izzo is glad he decided not to make as he welcomes Ward back this week.
“I would say that I think it’s gonna be perfect, and Xavier is looking forward to having his running mate back with him,” Izzo said. “What people don’t realize is those two have played pretty well together and we questioned that early in the year — can we do that? That's been the case.
“It’s not going to be easy these next couple of days. We’ll reinvent the wheel again. But at least I know the product I’m putting in there has been a very, very good product, where as some of the products I had put in there were just unknowns.”
Michigan State likely will stick with the same starting lineup Friday with Ward coming off the bench. How long that rotation lasts is anybody’s guess, but the longer the Spartans survive in the Big Ten tournament, the more time they have to work out the rotation.
“They say there’s always a silver lining in every cloud,” Izzo said. “Sometimes I never found that silver lining, but with Nick at halftime and wanting to play … I think there will be some frustrating moments for Nick and probably for us, but I think this is gonna be way more of a positive than a negative, and if we can play some games in this tournament, that helps him for the next tournament. So, (if you need) another reason to want to win games in Chicago, Nick Ward would be one of them.
“I’m kind of anxious to get after Nick a little bit (at practice). It’s gonna be fun.”