Des Moines, Iowa — Nick Ward was almost giddy on Friday afternoon.
It wasn’t exactly the mood most players might be in after playing only 10 minutes in Michigan State’s victory over Bradley on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But for Ward, patience could finally be paying off as No. 2 Michigan State prepares to play No. 10 Minnesota in the second round of the East Region at 7:45 p.m. Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
Ward missed five games because of a broken hand before returning during last week’s Big Ten tournament. The conditioning has taken some time to come back but combined with a poor matchup against a smaller Bradley team, the playing time has been hit and miss.
That should change against Minnesota.
“I’m very excited,” Ward said on Friday. “Just coming out and playing another Big Ten team, especially one we know, it’s huge. It’s gonna be challenging but we’re gonna be ready for it.”
Getting the old Nick Ward back will be important for the Spartans (29-6). In the only meeting during the regular season, Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds while shooting 9-for-14.
“I think a big key for us right now, because we need a lift, too, is getting Nick back,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Nick came back when he probably wasn't ready to come back. It wasn't anything that was going to damage his hand. I just mean physically ready and conditioning. He got the approval to go and it was like he was playing.
“Nick has played very well against Minnesota and I was hoping to get him a few more minutes last night. When you play those smaller teams, they got guys that can pick and pop and shoot threes or put the ball on the floor. Now we're getting back into more traditional teams and I'm hoping to get Nick in there more and get a real rotation, so Kenny (Goins) and X (Xavier Tillman) get a little more rest.
Ward is looking forward to a more traditional matchup, defending players like Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu, who want to play physical.
It helps, too, Ward says that this won’t be the first matchup.
“Their bigs are very talented and rebound and work hard,” Ward said. “That's something we all do. And we just the got to know their tendencies at the end of the day and box out. That's a big part of our game plan, you know. In order for us to win we're going to have to contain them on the boards and contain them as best we can.”
As for the conditioning, Ward knows he’s not quite back to where he was before the injury, but he does feel like he’s almost “back to my old self.”
Add that to adjusting to the protective brace on his hand and Ward thinks things are coming together at the right time.
“My conditioning has come along,” Ward said. “I've made great strides. Last week wasn't the best. This week I'm starting to feel normal and stuff like that. As far as catching the ball it is a bit of a challenge. Catching hard entry passes was my thing for a while, but since it's on my left hand it has made it challenging. But it's something I have to get used to.”
Michigan State asks a lot of fifth-year senior Kenny Goins. In the last five games, he’s played no less than 34 minutes, playing all 40 in the Big Ten tournament championship game against Michigan.
So, he probably deserves some slack when it comes to the fact he’s 0-for-11 from 3-point range over the last two games after shooting 41.4 percent in Big Ten games.
MSU's Goins, Ward, Tillman, Winston talk about facing Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“I think Kenny Goins, you know, he played like 39, 40 minutes in those games in Chicago and had to play a ton of minutes last night and I thought struggled a little bit,” Izzo said. “I think just being here a day and getting through that first game, last night's walkthrough, today's walkthrough there is a little bit more of a freshness to this team. I think we will be ready to go.”
Goins understands as well as anyone that there will be off days, and he’s not feeling any lack of confidence when it comes to shooting the ball.
“I missed a couple of shots. It happens,” Goins said. “Kobe, LeBron, Ray Allen. The best shooters miss shots and I have kind of had a little slump the last two games, but I still feel as confident as ever in my shot and will continue to keep shooting.”
Michigan State is 3-0 against current Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans beat Wisconsin, 53-41, in the 2000 Final Four on the way to a national championship.
Michigan State beat Maryland in the Sweet 16 in 2003 and in the second round in 2010. Both of those meetings came when Maryland was a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
… Minnesota has never faced another Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament.
… Michigan State is 21-6 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend. Five of the six losses have come to No. 1 seeds or the eventual national champion.