East Lansing — Nick Ward has been as efficient as any player on the Michigan State roster.
Entering Sunday’s game at Ohio State, the sophomore big man had made 38 of 44 shots over a five-game stretch and was last week’s Big Ten Player of the Week. Through 17 games, the 6-foot-8 Ward is averaging 14.7 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 71.8 percent (94-for-131) from the field.
So, it’s no surprise that opposing teams are starting to focus their defense on stopping Ward. That was the case Sunday in the loss at Ohio State. It was effective as Ward took just one shot while the usually sharp-shooting Spartans didn’t pick up their teammate.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo recognized the Buckeyes did well, but he wasn’t letting his players off the hook, either.
“They did a nice job and the double in the post was sort of effective and it got it out of Nick’s hands,” Izzo said as Michigan State prepared to host Rutgers on Wednesday night. “But we had wide-open looks. He passed it out of there all but one time real nice.
“The (issue with) ball movement was ours. The way they played defense and the way they made some shots, they deserve all the credit in the world. But the ball movement, or lack thereof, the fast break — we got one fast-break bucket. That wasn’t all them, that was lot of us not running hard and that hasn’t happened all year. I give them as much credit as I can give them, but I can’t give them all the credit.”
That goes with getting the ball into Ward, who did what he could to handle the Buckeyes’ double teams.
“I wasn’t really frustrated,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, I did what I could. I passed it out the best I could, rebounded the best I could. I could have reverse-sealed a little more (on moves to the basket). I could have done that. But at the end of the day, I played as hard as I could.”
Izzo and Ward both expect more of the same from opposing defenses as the season progresses, but they believe they have the weapons to handle it on most nights.
“We’ve got a couple of wrinkles we’re gonna put in where we saw what we think we can exploit if they do that,” Izzo said. “We’ve got enough shooters where if they want to double Nick (we can take advantage).
“And I think Nick is in a real good place. Nick Ward was one of the bright spots (Sunday) with how he handled everything and showed his maturity compared to maybe a month ago, even. I was very pleased with Nick.”
There was plenty of talk over the weekend about Ted Valentine, the official that plenty of fan bases love to hate because of his colorful personality and how he can sometimes make a show of his calls.
Last Wednesday, the veteran official turned his back on North Carolina player Joel Berry when Berry tried to a discuss a non-call. Valentine wanted nothing to do with it and turned his back on Berry. It was met with outrage on social media and led to Valentine being pulled off two Big Ten games and telling The Athletic he was considering retirement.
However, he was back on the call Tuesday in a game between Syracuse and Virginia.
Izzo, for one, has no issue with Valentine.
“I looked at him doing what he does to me if he doesn’t want to give me a T (technical),” Izzo said. “He kind of turns around and walks away. … I’m friends with Ted. I know what kind of play-caller he is. I know what kind of referee he is.”
Izzo also doesn’t have a problem with Valentine’s antics.
“Does he get carried away with things?” Izzo said. “This is what I do appreciate about good officials. Anybody who’s passionate about something has the tendency to make a fool of himself sooner or later. You’re pointing a lot of cameras at a guy that’s really good at doing that every once in a while.”
Michigan State’s starting lineup has been the same for all but two games and it includes Ward, Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Jaren Jackson Jr. That group is 13-2 and only an ankle injury to Bridges kept it from sticking together the entire season.
However, it has still been among the most productive in the Big Ten Conference, averaging 69.3 points, 26.4 rebounds and 13.4 assists a game. They are shooting 53.4 percent from the floor and 44.8 percent from 3-point range.