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MSU's Ward exhibits turnaround in OSU encore

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing —  When Nick Ward went back home to play against Ohio State last month, things didn’t go very well for the Michigan State freshman.

The native of Gahanna, Ohio, just outside of Columbus, struggled to handle the moment and scored just nine points on 3-for-7 shooting while turning the ball over three times, including a costly one in the final minutes of Ohio State’s 72-67 victory.

That night, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Ward appeared “out of sync.”

Heading into the rematch on Tuesday night, Izzo lamented how Ward handled the first meeting.

“He’s been through his own rivalry game and you handle those in two ways,” Izzo said. “You either get too up for them and lose focus, or you go the other route. That game he just, it was a struggle for him.”

Ward wasn’t about to have the same sort of performance in front of the home crowd. The freshman big man was far more effective, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds in 24 minutes of action in Michigan State’s 74-66 victory.

“This last two weeks, week-and-a-half, he’s really taken a big step up,” Izzo said after the game. “I’m afraid to give him too much credit, but I really do. He has to learn how to kick it out a little better, posting up deeper and harder, he’s doing a better job on the ball screens. He’s just a lot more focused.

“A couple plays Nick did some things that would have helped us win two or three games, including going 5-for-6 from the free throw line, that’s pretty good. You have to give him, and give (assistant coach Dwayne Stephens) credit on that too. Maybe DJ should coach the team. He did a hell of a job with him on the free throw shooting, too.”

It’s been a successful season as a whole for Ward, who has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times. But the loss at Ohio State was a step back. In the six games since that loss at Ohio State, Ward has scored in double-figures five times.

And on Tuesday, Ward was back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench against Iowa in an effort from Izzo to light a fire under the 6-foot-8 center.

“I’m not concerned on Nick right now,” Izzo said. “I think he understands what happened. … So I think right now Nick is in a good place and I think he’ll play a lot better and he has to play better if we’re going to win.”

Topsy-turvy

When the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee revealed its early rankings over the weekend that included the top four seeds in all four regions, there wasn’t a Big Ten team included.

Wisconsin, Purdue and Maryland all have a solid case for being among the top 16, however, if the rankings reflect the actual field announced at the end of the regular season, it would be the first time since 2004 the Big Ten didn’t have a team seeded in the top four.

Izzo was asked about that this week.

“It just seems like, maybe because I live in Big Ten country, when Northwestern beats Wisconsin, it means the top is down,” Izzo said. “When somebody does it in another conference, it means the parity is up.

“I’m not gonna apologize for the Big Ten. Are we as good at the top? No, in my humble opinion, we’re not – and we still play some of those teams, if someone wants to use that against me. I don’t think we’re as strong at the top as we were the last couple of years. Are we stronger at the bottom? One-hundred percent yes.”

Michigan State is currently in the field according to most projections as Izzo is looking to take his team to the NCAA Tournament for the 20th straight season.

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Ohio State guard JaQuan Lyle was back on the court Tuesday night after missing the Buckeyes’ game with Maryland over the weekend when he headed home because of a family emergency, returning to Indiana to be with his sister as she dealt with complications from childbirth.

Lyle, who has been bothered by a sore ankle, did not start but came off the bench and scored 10 points.

“I thought JaQuan was pretty solid today for not doing a whole lot here last week,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He’s good. He was fine. No changes, he was actually kind of glad to be back and be around the guys.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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