East Lansing — It was never going to be easy, not in a rugged Big Ten race. But for Michigan State, the task just grew significantly tougher, and roles just shifted dramatically yet again.
The painful wince on Nick Ward’s face told part of the story during the Spartans’ hard-fought, 62-44 victory over Ohio State on Sunday. The rest of the story came afterward, when the team announced Ward suffered a hairline fracture of his left hand and there was no timetable for his return.
Notably, the statement said “it is hoped” the 6-9 junior would return before the end of the season, and he’d be reevaluated weekly. Also of note, Ward’s a left-handed shooter and the team’s second-leading scorer. As the Spartans churn toward the finish of a frantic Big Ten race, Tom Izzo has been relying more and more on the unexpected, and that’s really going to ratchet up now.
Nothing much has gone as planned for the Spartans, who earlier lost Joshua Langford for the season, but they’ve kept digging and unearthing different pieces. For instance, one-time walk-on Kenny Goins has become a clutch-time shooter. For instance, touted shooter Matt McQuaid has become a lockdown defender. Those two were the difference against the Buckeyes in a game tighter than the score indicated, and they’ll have to be even bigger differences now.
Ward’s injury doesn’t destroy the Spartans’ Big Ten championship hopes because they still have Cassius Winston and still play sound, smothering defense. And there’s a possibility Ward will be back at some point. But it’s a staggering blow to their chances for an NCAA Tournament run.
Their Big Ten hopes were cracking a bit before they glued them back together with a ferocious defensive flurry to bury the Buckeyes. In the grand scheme, it was an inartistic effort. In the smaller scheme, this is what the Spartans (21-5) have to do now, as they climbed back into a first-place tie with Michigan. Both are 12-3, one week before the first hotly anticipated Mitten Madness showdown in Ann Arbor Sunday. In between, Michigan plays at Minnesota and Michigan State hosts Rutgers.
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Anything can happen in this league, as we’ve seen, but if neither stumbles, we should have a clash of top-10 teams for the top spot in the Big Ten. And if you thought the Spartans were cooked unless Winston is starring, or Ward is pounding, they’re giving you something else to think about.
Ward missed most of the second half after getting injured late in the first half. He sat on the bench, grimacing, with his left hand heavily taped. Against the lesser Buckeyes at home in Breslin Center, not a huge deal, right?
Well, except backup big man Xavier Tillman was in foul trouble. Except Winston looked exhausted at times, and hit only three of 15 shots. Except with 8:40 to go, the score was 39-39 and Michigan State’s lineup on the court was this: Goins, McQuaid, Kyle Ahrens, and freshmen Thomas Kithier and Foster Loyer.
“Everyone keeps asking about that weird lineup,” said Goins, a 6-7 senior. “I don’t even know who was out there. All I know is, it was pretty much four-and-a-half white guys.”
Goins laughed, and in that moment he flashed the confidence and good-humored ease that comes with being a seasoned senior. He’s a former walk-on who admittedly didn’t work hard on his outside shot until this past summer, and now here he was, in a tie game, directing a lineup that had never played together.
Goins went straight to work, draining a 3-pointer for a 42-39 lead, launching a closing 23-5 run. After a rough first half, the Spartans trailed 31-25 and Goins was scoreless, and Izzo was furious. By the end, Goins had 10 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two clutch 3-pointers. That production, as well as vocal leadership, will be needed more now.
“I feel more confident now than I ever have here,” Goins said. “Sometimes you gotta direct people around, and they can get the deer-in-the-headlights look. That’s the time I feel I need to stay calm and keep us moving as a machine.”
Pressure on McQuaid
The Spartans aren’t a well-oiled machine, after their recent three-game losing streak and a jumbled rotation, especially with Langford out. That’s why their defense is as important as ever, as suffocating as ever. That’s why McQuaid is as important as ever, one of the best defenders in the league.
The 6-5 senior has raised that part of his game without diminishing his shooting. He hit four of six 3-pointers against the Buckeyes and now leads the team in 3-point percentage (44.2). Winston was 1-for-7 and dropped to 43.7.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo discusses Sunday's win over Ohio State. The Detroit News
McQuaid came to Michigan State as a touted shooting guard out of Texas, but has been reluctant at times to fire away. Once Langford went down, his role immediately went up, and he knew the only way to consistently contribute on an Izzo team was to play defense. So he plays it maniacally, and helped hold Ohio State freshman Luther Muhammad to 1-for-9 shooting.
“Matt McQuaid plays with a sense of urgency every minute,” Izzo said. “(CBS commentator) Bill Raftery just told me, “Wow, that McQuaid is impressive on defense.’ Talk about the sacrifice that kid has made for this team. He was a shooter his whole life, and it’s really nice to see him do both.”
Now, would Izzo prefer to be talking about another spectacular Winston performance? Sure. Is he concerned about the junior guard wearing down? Sure.
Is he shaken by the Ward news? Probably. Immediately after the game, Ward was still being evaluated, so Izzo didn’t yet know the severity. If he did, it likely wouldn’t have altered his message, that the Spartans can’t always rely on top performances from their top players. If they’re to survive, plenty must pitch in.
“My two glue guys, McQuaid and Goins, got us going,” Izzo said. “Kenny’s shot looks very smooth now, almost better than anybody on our team. He might have been the reason we won the game, but part of the reason we were in trouble in the first half was because guys weren’t doing their job. (It’s important) for my guys to figure out you gotta win different ways, and we know we have to win some games like this.”
Forced to go to a bunch of bench guys, the Spartans didn’t drop a notch on the toughness scale. They held the Buckeyes to 4-for-21 shooting the second half, using pretty much everyone. Little did we know it was a preview of the challenge ahead. With the somber news on Ward, it won’t be the last time everyone is needed.