Izzo looks to freshman Ward for instant offense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
MSU's Nick Ward, center, battles for a loose ball against Minnesota's Jordan Murphy, left, and Reggie Lynch on Tuesday in Minnesota.

Minneapolis – When Michigan State needs points, more often than not this season, coach Tom Izzo has looked to freshman big man Nick Ward.

Few teams have been able to consistently stop the 6-foot-8 post player, and that was again the case on Tuesday in Michigan State’s 75-74 overtime victory at Minnesota. Ward finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds while scoring six straight in a key stretch late in the game that took the Spartans from one down to three ahead with less than three minutes left in regulation.

“He has gotten himself in pretty good shape and I know he will continue to get in better shape,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said of Ward. “But he was terrific and ever since Miles (Bridges) has been out, they have been going to him, which they should. Coach Izzo obviously knows what he is doing there because he is a load and they put him in a spot that is tough to do much off of him.”

Ward took advantage of the foul trouble the Minnesota big men were in much of the night. Starting center Reggie Lynch eventually fouled out, and that was the difference according to some.

“You saw at the beginning where Reggie was affecting his shots,” Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy said. “Then Reggie got in foul trouble, and there was a huge difference with the type of swagger that Ward had throughout the game, when Reggie was guarding him and when he wasn’t, or when Reggie was being too passive.

"You can see the affect that Reggie has on the game, just being there bothers people’s shots. They’re more hesitant to go in the paint than when he’s not there.”

As good as Ward was offensively, he wore down late playing 33 minutes and Izzo is still pushing him to be better defensively.

What didn’t go well for Ward was his free-throw shooting, an Achilles heel all season that improved last week against Oakland. On Tuesday, Ward was just 4-for-13 from the line and he missed the front end of a one-and-one with the game tied at the end of regulation.

“The free throws, he’s worked on it so hard and so have we as team and it almost cost us again,” Izzo said. “You can’t fault the effort. Since we’ve been back it’s been morning, noon and night. Nick is great to go into, we just got to get better on both ends so we can keep him in games.”

As for the free throws?

“I’ll probably go back to East Lansing tonight and shoot 100 free throws,” Ward said. “Maybe 200.”

Bridges nears return

Freshman Miles Bridges went through some of Michigan State’s shoot-around and is getting closer to returning to the lineup after missing his sixth straight game with an injury to his left ankle.

Izzo said Bridges will get to do some jump shooting and running when the team returns to prepare for Friday’s game against Northwestern, but he’s still not pushing things.

“If he has no pain we’ll accelerate it,” Izzo said. “What does that mean? I’m still not gonna take any chances. If I feel great about it I’ll probably wait another game, whatever that is, if it’s in one week, two weeks. But it’s been positive. He’s feeling good, he felt good after the workout and he’s chomping at the bit.

“It’s not gonna happen tomorrow or the next day, but it’s not three weeks from now either.”

Nairn responds

Lost in the play of Ward and the career-high 20 points from Alvin Ellis on Tuesday was one of the better games this season from junior guard Tum Tum Nairn.

With freshman Cassius Winston in foul trouble, it was Nairn who got plenty of work and he responded with 13 points to match his career high, including a couple of 3-pointers at the end of the shot clock, the second coming in overtime.

“I had the ball in my hands at the end of the shot clock and just had to shoot the ball with confidence,” Nairn said. “I work on it a lot but I’m just happy we got the win.”

Nairn has been bothered by a sore foot, but he said afterward that he is feeling fine.

“It’s feeling betting better every day,” Nairn said. “It’s not a problem. I’m good.”