Column: Izzo, MSU basketball has found their needed big man
The 'human highlight reel,' freshman guard Miles Bridges came into his collegiate career the star of arguably Head Coach Tom Izzo’s best recruiting class.
Bridges showed his value early, scoring 21 points with 7 rebounds in a thrilling loss against then-No. 10 Arizona. It’s no surprise the Spartans look to him to provide momentum and scoring.
When the Spartans came into this season, they thought this early stout campaign of long travel and high caliber competition would be an early measure of their starting point and how good can they be. Yet their frontcourt injuries of forward Gavin Schilling, forward Ben Carter and the departures of forward Deyonta Davis and forward Marvin Clark Jr., Izzo didn’t foresee a lineup so young.
This young team battled well against then-No. 20 Baylor in the first half, same with No. 5 Duke, however were unable to find that one guy who could take them to the next level. As Izzo sifts through the sand to find help, gold has turned up on the low post – freshman forward Nick Ward.
Coming into this season, Ward was out of shape. He said he needed to learn how to eat right and with the next level exercise at the college level, Ward dropped 23 pounds before the season began. Although he is yet to start, Ward is averaging 10.5 points per game on 15.6 minutes per game. His lowest scoring output was seven against Baylor, his highest was 18 points against Mississippi Valley State.
His counterpart, forward Kenny Goins, is off to troubling start. Points and offense were never his game, but being able to hoist in rebounds and play good defense is the x-factor that gave him the starting job. His experience could be added into that mix, but now that MSU has covered the toughest part of their schedule, the roster has shown their freshman are just as good – if not better – than the upperclassmen.
Guard Eron Harris appears to only lace his shoes up in certain games, guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. has done just enough to keep ahead of freshman guard Cassius Winston and guard Matt McQuaid has shown his best ability is in a role off the bench.
Watching Ward against No. 5 Duke, a major thing freshman get knocked for, are the little things; the small intangible plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet, such as diving for loose balls or hustling down the court, but Ward looked quite refined. He was rotating well on defense, shuffling his feet and most of all, his 6-foot-8, 250 pound frame was beating the Duke defense down the court. As MSU wants to run in transition, which has shown to be their best quality so far, Ward is masterful. At the same time, Goins was flat footed in stretches. The worst infraction was when Duke’s Grayson Allen blew by the heart of the Spartan defense, giving himself an easy layup to start his second half barrage.
On three separate occasions, Ward was down the middle of the court, cutting to the basket and found for easy dunks. Baskets in transition, second chance points and points in the paint, give color to the overall canvas of a basketball game. Each time a basket falls in one of these categories, it means they are either out running, out working and plain out hustling their opponent.
His footwork in the low post has been remarkable as well. Quick drop steps – explode to the cylinder – finishing gently. Each team he has faced, his back to the basket skills are on display. On more occasions, he is yelling for the ball with one-on-one match-ups on the block. If MSU throws the ball to him more, the impending double-team will open up shooters for a new dynamic to a struggling half-court offense. If the double-team doesn't come, Ward has shown he is capable to getting a good shot off.
He still needs to work on right hand, post defense and increase both offensive and defensive awareness, however he has given the Spartans a bright spot in their early slug.