With Ward back, Michigan State yearns for second helping of Big Ten glory
East Lansing — With one week left in the regular season Tom Izzo joked about closing things out with a regular-season championship then taking a pass on the conference tournament.
Of course, there’s no pass when it comes to playing in the Big Ten tournament, though there have been times in the past when Michigan State fans have wondered how much the Spartans coach cared about the traditional end to the season.
But after the Spartans capped off the regular season over the weekend by beating Michigan and winning a share of the Big Ten championship, how they approach this week’s tournament in Chicago is a legitimate question considering the injuries they’ve been dealing with and the fact the NCAA Tournament, which begins next week, is the ultimate prize.
So, a pass wouldn’t be the worst thing. It’s just not what the Spartans intend to do.
“We are playing for a championship and any time you play for a championship you better make sure your guys understand that is a different level and that’s part of the culture you develop in your program, too,” Izzo said. “Do you try to win the Big Ten and take the week off? We’re not gonna do that. We’re playing for a championship, playing for (NCAA Tournament) seeding, playing for our pride and we’re playing for the thousands and thousands of alums that will come into Chicago.”
What the fans in Chicago and watching on television will see when No. 6 Michigan State (25-6) takes the court at 12:30 p.m. on Friday is a team that is at least a bit closer to looking like the one that began the season. While guard Joshua Langford won’t be back until next season, center Nick Ward will be back when the Spartans take on the winner of Thursday’s Ohio State-Indiana game.
The junior big man was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice as he got used to playing with some extra padding on the left hand he broke on Feb. 17 in a victory over Ohio State.
“It feels great to be on the court fully,” Ward said. “It’s fine. The hand is good. The challenge has been probably the conditioning a little bit, but that’s a little thing to fix. My conditioning isn’t bad just getting back to playing.”
Ward’s return can only help and offense that has remained among the most efficient in the nation, ranking fourth according to Kenpom.com. However, they Spartans have had to change things up, relying more on Cassius Winston running off high ball screens.
Getting Ward’s low-post presence back will give Michigan State more offensive options
“It just adds a whole different element to our team,” Winston said of Ward’s return. “It’s an inside presence, he’s dominant and if you don’t scout for him, if you don’t do something about him he’s going to hurt you. So, a lot of teams got to worry about him and we got all these other guys that have to play big roles and big minutes and they’ll continue to play that way and it adds another element.”
While Ward was back at it on Tuesday, others were getting a break. Winston watched most of practice while Kyle Ahrens and Xavier Tillman took their share of breaks.
Ahrens insisted he’s willing to do whatever he can, even if means rarely sitting during games to keep his back loose.
“I don’t like sitting down and getting tight,” Ahrens said. “I’m always moving and ready to go whenever they need me. I can always do more.”
The prospect of playing three games in three days – that’s what the Spartans would have to do to win the Big Ten tournament – isn’t the best position for the Spartans to be in with the NCAA Tournament up next.
However, once they’re on the court, the goal will be to earn a conference-best sixth tournament title and the first since 2016.
“Yeah, we wanna win,” Tillman said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. We’re not trying to take a break, were not trying to … we want to win. That’s it. I haven’t won a Big Ten tournament. I don’t think … Quaido, Arnie and Kenny and maybe (Connor George) have won a Big Ten tournament. I haven’t won a Big Ten tournament so that’s the goal. We’re coming in there to win.”
AP honor for Winston
Winston was named the Associated Press Big Ten Player of the Year on Tuesday, a day after earning the same honor in voting among conference coaches and media. He’s the second Spartan in four years to earn the honor, joining Denzel Valentine in 2016.
Winston has scored at least 20 points in 17 games and averages 19 per game to rank fourth in the league. He’s first in the Big Ten and third in the nation in assists (7.6), his 2.6-to-1 assist-turnover ratio is best in the league and his 41.3 percent 3-point shooting ranks third.
The former Mr. Basketball from UD-Jesuit is one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy, is on the top 20 watch list for the Wooden Award and is one of 12 players selected to the Oscar Robertson Trophy final midseason watch list. Those three awards go to the top player in the nation. Winston, who was named first-team All-American by The Sporting News this week, is also among five finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award.
Big Ten tournament
At United Center, Chicago
►No. 12 Rutgers (14-16) vs. No. 13 Nebraska (16-15), 6:30 (BTN)
►No. 11 Illinois (11-20) vs. No. 14 Northwestern (13-18), 9 (BTN)
►No. 8 Ohio State (18-13)vs. No. 9 Indiana (17-14), 12:30 (BTN)
►No. 5 Maryland (22-9) vs. Rutgers-Nebraska winner, 3 (BTN)
►No. 7 Minnesota (19-12) vs. No. 10 Penn State (14-17), 7 (BTN)
►No. 6 Iowa (21-10) vs. Illinois-Northwestern winner, 9:30 (BTN)
►No. 1 Michigan State (25-6) vs. Ohio State-Indiana winner, 12:30 (BTN)
►No. 4 Wisconsin (22-9) vs. Maryland/Rutgers-Nebraska winner, 3 (BTN)
►No. 2 Purdue (23-8) vs. Minnesota-Penn State winner, 7 (BTN)
►No. 3 Michigan (26-5) vs. Iowa/Illinois-Northwestern winner, 9:30 (BTN)
►First semifinal, 1 (CBS)
►Second semifinal, 3:30 (CBS)
►Championship, 3:30 (CBS)