Michigan State center Nick Ward will be available this afternoon for first time in 5 games. His Spartans take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals (12:30 p.m. EST, BTN).
The 6-foot-8, 245-pounder suffered a hairline fracture his left hand during the Ohio State game on Feb. 17. The plan is to bring him along slowly to tune up for NCAA Tournament play next week.
“It’s definitely perfect timing,” Ward said to reporters on Wednesday. “I wanted to play Saturday, but it wasn’t in my best interest to play for various reasons with my hand, but now it’s 100 percent and I feel good.”
That game on Saturday was the home finale, and de facto Big Ten regular-season championship game, against rival Michigan. The short-handed Spartans beat the top-10 Wolverines 75-63.
As Kyle Austin at MLive noted, Ward insisted on suiting up at halftime with his team down six. It wasn’t necessary, and some are concerned his reinsertion into the lineup will tamper with the recent mojo. Assistant coach Dane Fife called it a “delicate” situation.
“Our defensive scheme has been a lot different,” Fife said to reporters. “You really can’t get enough reps in practice. We’ve got to get Nick caught up in live action.”
Utilizing reserve center Xavier Tillman, the Spartans were able to switch on Michigan’s ball-screens, holding the Wolverines to just 31 percent shooting in the second half. In addition to his 3 blocks, Tillman also tallied 17 points to replace Ward’s scoring production without breaking up the flow of the offense.
“I think Nick sometimes gets caught up with how he’s going to get open on the next pass as opposed to the understanding that he’s got to screen,” Fife said. “I think part of it was Nick felt a lot of pressure to score for us to win. And part of that was on us.”
Now, Michigan State faces Ohio State and a fellow returning big man in Kaleb Wesson. The Buckeye notched a double-double Thursday against Indiana in his first game since returning from a 3-game suspension.
Let’s take a look at how the Spartans can advance to the semifinals.
Spartans’ Outlook vs. Ohio State
Michigan State has been able to flex it’s pick-and-roll game much better with Tillman in the lineup.
“Without Nick, everybody turned into screeners,” Tillman said this week. “We just screened and screened and we opened the floor like that. And with Nick in the post, people are allowed to sink in and dig (double-team) a lot.”
None of this style of offense is possible without star guard Cassius Winston. The junior point guard is incredibly undervalued as a pro prospect, as evidenced by 2 straight 20-point plus showings versus the Wolverines. The performances came against the nation’s No. 3 efficiency defense.
The other benefactor of the new approach has been forward Kenny Goins steps up to the plate.
The 6-foot-7 senior racked up 16 points with 3 triples in the first game in Ann Arbor. He connects on 38.9 percent of his 3-pointers on the season. He added 3 more against Michigan in East Lansing.
Without Ward (or guard Josh Langford for that matter), the Spartan offense has scored 1.17 points per possession. Extrapolated out for the full season, that would rank near the top-10 nationally.
The addition of the junior is certainly relevant though against the Buckeyes, as the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Wesson will require extra bodies and attention. Tillman is similarly sized to Ward, but will have to expend a lot of energy to slow down the big man. Splitting minutes will keep the two fresh.
Wesson combined to score 37 points in the last two meetings, including a 25-point outing in Columbus back in January.
Outside of that, the Spartans should be able to outscore the Buckeyes, who have shot under 30 percent from deep in both meetings. Improved offense and an answer for Wesson should be enough to move on to the semifinals.
If that means a matchup with Wisconsin and center Ethan Happ, head coach Tom Izzo will be grateful he got a game to work in Ward before another battle.