MSU plots to get Nick Ward on the front burner again

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State has had plenty to work on since it last played a game.

Since falling in the Big Ten tournament semifinals to Michigan roughly a week-and-a-half ago, the Spartans have worked on ball-screen defense, moving the ball on offense and refocusing on the details on both ends of the floor.

But as Michigan State continued to prepare this week for Friday’s 7:10 p.m. tip-off against Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena, there was one aspect that Tom Izzo made clear had been a point of emphasis.

“I think what we are looking to get back to a little bit more is Nick has had a great four, five days,” Izzo said, talking about sophomore big man Nick Ward, “maybe the best since he’s been here and we’ve got to establish him in that low post.”

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It’s been one of the major frustrations of Michigan State’s offense throughout the bulk of the Big Ten season. After starting nonconference play on fire, Ward cooled off once conference play began.

In 13 nonconference games, Ward scored in double-figures 11 times and was shooting better than 70 percent. In one four-game stretch in late December, he was 32-for-34 shooting.

It seemed there was little that could stop the 6-foot-8 Ward.

Then, Big Ten play got rolling again and No. 1 Michigan State headed to Ohio State. The Buckeyes bothered Ward that day with regular double-teams, providing a blueprint for the rest of the conference as Ward took just one shot in that game.

“I think he got frustrated, I think we got a little frustrated when he was getting doubled,” Izzo said. “He may get doubled, now he’s been better the last two weeks at dealing with it, but I think he’s comfortable now. We’ve worked on it every single day and so when he gets doubled we can play out of it, but there’s no question that double team affected his offense and his defense and then we’d pull him out.”

It led to sporadic minutes and even more sporadic production. Ward scored in double figures seven more times to close the season but he took more than eight shots in a game just twice. Combined with his struggle handling double teams and difficult defensive matchups — namely in the two Michigan games and against Purdue — it has been hard for Ward to develop a rhythm.

But the plan moving forward is for that to change. In addition to attacking the basket, Ward must become more of a factor.

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“That’s the first thing I said, we’ve got to get the ball inside to Nick more,” Izzo said. “And he’s got to respond, which he’s had some great days here lately.

“We’re still not taking a million 3s. It’s not like we’re living and dying with the 3 I think the key is for us do we defend well enough, do we rebound well enough that we get our fast break going. That’s when we score some buckets, and then in the half court we’ve got to get back into Nick a little bit more than we have.”

Defensive matchups can always play a factor, as well, and Izzo is willing to adjust the lineup more than he was early in the season.

In the last two games against Wisconsin, Jaren Jackson Jr. played the five position late in games while against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament, Miles Bridges played some at the four position and worked more out of the low post.

How the Spartans defend Bucknell will be a challenge. The Bison have plenty of shooters, but they also have a 6-10 big man who can score on the block. Senior Nana Foulland is averaging 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds and can bang with Ward.

It could lead to some shuffling around for the Spartans.

“We can play Jaren at the three in some things and Miles at the four and keep the same lineup in there,” Izzo said. “I think our size and offensive rebounding would be one of our strengths against them, but we’re not gonna make wholesale changes though we could make some of those adjustments.”