MSU's Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman talk LSU. The Detroit News
East Lansing — There’s not a lot Michigan State juniors Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens can do on the court these days.
Langford and Ahrens have been sporting matching walking boots lately as both recover from injuries — Langford missing most of the season after surgery to repair a broken foot and Ahrens the past week after suffering a grade 3 sprain of the ankle in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
So, coach Tom Izzo, who already had Langford working on the team’s out-of-bounds plays, decided he needed more work for the duo — helping junior Nick Ward learn how to handle the mental aspect of getting back into playing form after missing time because of an injury.
“They might have had the most important role of all,” Izzo said when asked Monday what Langford and Ahrens provided last weekend during first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games. “I asked both guys to spend some time with Nick on Friday. I said, ‘He’s never been through an injury like you guys have. You know how hard it is, psychologically. I don’t. I never was really injured.’
“Kyle has been his roommate for 2-3 years on the road, so it was cool. I didn’t tell them what to say and didn’t ask what they said. I could tell it was like a weight was off his shoulders.”
Ward responded in the second game of the weekend, a 70-50 win over Minnesota that allowed No. 2 Michigan State (30-6) to advance to the Sweet 16 and set up a game with No. 3 LSU at 7:09 p.m. on Friday from Capital One Arena on Washington, D.C.
Ward played 20 minutes, the most since he returned to the lineup, finishing with nine points and seven rebounds.
“It felt great,” Ward said. “I’m getting back to how I really am. My conditioning has come a long way and my hand is feeling a lot better.”
Those things are both true, but it wasn’t so much the physical aspect the Spartans have been working on.
After playing only 10 minutes in the first-round win over Bradley, which followed just eight minutes in the win over Michigan in the conference championship game, Ward needed a pick-me-up.
And that’s what Ahrens and Langford tried to provide.
“I just let him know that we need him,” Ahrens said. “He needs to mentally be locked in.”
The message might not have been that simple, but it clearly worked.
On Friday, as the Spartans prepared to face Minnesota, Ward was upbeat during media sessions and looked much looser during the game.
“I thought Thursday his head wasn’t where it needed to be, and I thought we spent a lot of time with Nick on Friday,” Izzo said, “and I think he is in the best place he’s been since he got injured. He was in here working out on his own (Sunday) and I think he just felt better.”
That’s exactly how Ward felt, and the chats with his ailing teammates were a big part of it.
“It helped me a lot,” Ward said. “They just told me how it feels because I never really had to go through this. But it was very informative, very encouraging and it helped me a lot.
“I started to feel like my normal self again (during the Minnesota game). It’s coming along and hopefully I feel like my full self this weekend.”
That full self could be returning at exactly the right time for Michigan State. LSU starts 6-foot-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams and 6-10 Naz Reid and is one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation.
Getting some help for Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman could tilt the matchup in Michigan State’s favor.
“It definitely will be big, especially with a team like this that has that kind of size,” Goins said. “He defends the post really well and just to be abler to keep us moving in and out of game is gonna be the biggest part, just trying to throw bodies back at ’em.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo met the media Monday in East Lansing. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The 6-9 Ward relishes the matchup, one he hopes isn’t the last one to prepare for this season.
“It’s win or go home,” Ward said. “This next weekend is huge. LSU is a great team and we have to come to play. It’s a blessing to be here.
“We broke the curse. I’ve been knocked out in the round of 32 two years straight. This year we’re in the Sweet 16 and hopefully we’ll go farther.”
Having Ward at full strength will go a long way toward reaching that goal.
“I think we saw some progress in Nick and that would be really good working him back in the rotation,” Izzo said. “There are still stumbling blocks but even he said he felt so much better after that game, just the feel, not necessarily anything physical.
“So, I think as a whole, I think he is in a good spot now. I think he’s got a ways to go but I think those three guys are really figuring out we need to get that rotation back and that’s what we’re working on.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 3 LSU
Tip-off: 7:09 Friday, Capital One Arena, Washington
Records: Michigan State 30-6; LSU 28-6
At stake: The winner moves to the Elite Eight to face No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech.