Michigan State's Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Cassius Winston talk about preparing for the FInal Four. The Detroit News
East Lansing — The past month and a half has been a period of adjustment for Michigan State junior center Nick Ward.
Adjusting to life on the sideline after suffering a hand injury. Adjusting to playing with a wrap around his surgically repaired left hand. Adjusting to a new role when he was able to return to the court.
But at no point did Ward sulk or sour when sophomore Xavier Tillman took his starting spot in the lineup. Never did he moan and groan about having to come off the bench. Instead, he went with the flow while he worked his way back into one.
“I think, obviously, it's frustrating at times because he's done a lot for our program,” Dwayne Stephens said Tuesday as the team prepared for Saturday’s Final Four matchup against No. 3 seed Texas Tech. “He's been in there and he knows what he can get done what we want him to get done.
"But I think it speaks to his character and the kind of kid he is. He loves his teammates and he loves to win more than anything. I think that love to win is one of the reasons he's been able to accept it.”
That doesn’t mean Ward didn't want his starting job back. Stephens said Ward is one of the most competitive players on the team and “it would bother me if he didn’t want that.”
Yet, Stephens noted there has been a give and take with Tillman and Ward swapping roles. The Spartans have been better at operating and defending the ball screen over the past 12 games — a stretch where Michigan State has gone 11-1 — but took a step back in being able to score in the post and in transition.
Then there’s also the issue with Ward struggling to get his feel back and contributing like he was before he injured his hand on Feb. 17 and missed the next five games.
Since returning for the Big Ten tournament, Ward has averaged 5.9 points (43.2 percent shooting) and 4.1 rebounds in 13.1 minutes over the last seven games. Prior to the injury, Ward averaged 15.1 points (60.4 percent shooting) and 6.6 rebounds in 23.2 minutes over 26 games.
“The part I don't think people understand is when you sit for five games like he did, you don't get to go back to who you were right before you went out,” Stephens said. “A lot of doctors will say when you have an injury, how long is it going to take me to get back to what I was before? And if you're out for six months, then it's going to take to you six months to get back to that point. Nick was out for a couple weeks and it's been a couple weeks, so he's working his way back."
With Ward inching closer and closer to his old self, he’s expected to play a critical role in helping Michigan State solve a Texas Tech team that ranks No. 1 in the nation in KenPom’s defensive efficiency and has stifled every team that has crossed its path in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we can get the ball inside. I think we can hurt them there,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think it's the perfect time for Nick to be getting better. And the way Tillman and (Kenny) Goins are playing, I think that's going to be one key.”
Whether that’s quickly making the right reads, passing the ball out of double teams or scrapping to get an offensive rebound, Ward is prepared to give everything he can for as long as he can.
Because if these last six weeks taught him anything, it's how to adjust his job and lend a helping hand in whatever way it's needed.
“It's just a blessing to be on the court, period,” Ward said. “I'm just thankful that I'm back here.
“I'm ready for this moment. I'm excited to be playing in the Final Four, so I'm going to do my best to prepare offensively and defensively and prepare for whatever happens.”
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
►Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
►Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
►Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)