Spartans put priority on getting Ward involved early
East Lansing — Michigan State entered Friday’s game with two primary goals on offense — get the ball to center Nick Ward on the block and pump some energy into the fast break.
At least one of those goals was accomplished in No. 9 Michigan State’s 85-57 victory over Indiana at the Breslin Center as Ward scored 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season.
“Everything felt normal again. The past weekend we didn’t play Spartan basketball, and it cost us,” Ward said. “So, to get back on track, especially in the Big Ten, was big for us.”
It was big for Ward, too, who had been stymied over the previous three games by teams that had put their defensive focus on stopping the 6-foot-8 sophomore. He got just one shot off in the loss to Ohio State and was limited to four points in the loss to Michigan.
“We gotta get the ball to Nick more, we gotta get the ball out of double-teams a little better,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said early in the week. “When we go back and look at the film, it hasn’t happened as much as you’d think. He’s not doing a good job of getting deep, we’re not doing a good job of passing it in, and the coaches aren’t doing a very good job of figuring out how to get it in. So, that’s what we’ve been working on and what we are gonna work on.”
Against the Hoosiers, it was clear getting the ball to Ward was a priority. He scored the first bucket of the game and continued to get the ball deep in the first five minutes. Indiana responded by double-teaming Ward, who showed quickly that he’s starting to adjust.
With 10:37 left in the half, Ward dribbled out of a double team and found Cassius Winston cross court for a 3-pointer. The shot put Michigan State ahead, 27-10, and capped an 18-0 run for the Spartans.
It was a move Ward has had trouble with in recent games.
“It was (one of the highlights of the game),” Izzo said. “Only because we worked on it for three straight days, you know, what we were gonna do. One time he almost didn’t do it because he dribbled the ball too quick. When he’s patient, takes his time, and that was a beautiful pass to Cass.
"I think Cass shot a three if I can remember. But it was the execution of what we wanted to get done that was more impressive than even if he would have missed the shot, to be honest with you. Nick was a lot better tonight. …That, too, was important for us.”
Michigan State was visited by a world champion on Friday before its game against Indiana, and he believes he saw another champion on the floor.
At least, former Major League All-Star Alex Rodriguez believes the Spartans can become a championship team.
“I just watched you guys up there for about an hour, and you guys, if you want it, you’re world champs,” Rodriguez said in a video posted by Michigan State. “There’s more talent here than you need. There’s an abundance of talent. Trust your coaches, there’s no better coaching staff in the world than what you have right here.
"You don’t need any more talent. You just need to focus, you need to discipline and you need to believe. You can’t win without the swagger, without the confidence, without the humility, and I wish you guys the very best. I’ll be watching tonight.”
Rodriguez, who earlier in the day visited with Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio, was in Detroit on Thursday speaking at a luncheon connected with the North American International Auto Show.
“His message was on the work and the things you got to do to be great,” Izzo said. “He told the team that he’s got 2,000 hits and this many home runs and all those things and he’s won a world championship, but what sticks out to him the most is that he is the fifth-greatest player in the world as far as strikeouts. He is in fifth place and Reggie Jackson is in first, so pretty impressive.
“He talked about how many times he failed, how to get back up. What a great message when we have just come off a disappointing week of basketball. I thought that was really, really — the way he said it and the way he approached guys. If you had seen our guys, they were really glued in. I really appreciated Alex coming.”
Michigan State entered the game No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense with opponents shooting 34.9 percent this season. Indiana shot 33.9 percent (20-for-59) but did make 8 of 26 3-pointers, including four from Robert Johnson.
… Miles Bridges scored at least 20 points for the fifth time this season and the 15th time in his career.
… The Spartans handed out 23 assists on 32 field goals.
... Michigan State outscored Indiana, 38-18, in the paint and had 17 second-chance points.