Hoops notes: Ward bounces back, team gets time to 'focus on ourselves'
The second-year forward was admittedly frustrated by Rutgers' defense, being constantly bombarded by double teams. After not starting the second half, Ward was abruptly pulled from the game after seeing the court for only a minute and remained on the bench for the rest of the game.
In his postgame press conference after No. 3 MSU's 88-63 win over Southern Utah Saturday night, head coach Tom Izzo said he benched Ward against the Scarlet Knights because of the forward not emotionally responding well to Rutgers' defensive scheme against him.
"Nick (Ward) got frustrated about some things and I didn't like the way he played," Izzo said. "I said, 'Well your body language, Nick. You didn't get pulled because of your play, you got pulled because of your body language."'
The script was completely flipped for Ward, however, in the Spartan's victory over Southern Utah. Ward played 21 minutes and put in 17 points, and could have put up more had he not left five points at the free-throw line.
In fact, the team made an asserted effort to get Ward more involved in the offense early on after he had only five field goal attempts last Tuesday. The ball was dumped down to Ward in the post on the Spartan's first two possessions.
Ward missed both hook shots from the block, and admitted to being anxious in the opening minutes.
"I was just anxious," Ward said. "I got a little nervous but you know I caught my niche throughout the game."
That's exactly what he did. After going 2-of-6 in the first half, Ward made all four of his shots after intermission.
The Gahanna, Ohio native talked about the similarities and differences he saw going up against Southern Utah's defense in comparison to Rutgers'.
"It had the same defensive feel, they didn't double me as hard so it was a little better," Ward said.
Things were going so well for Ward that the sophomore even nailed a three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring on a disjointed MSU possession late in the first half. The three-point attempt and make were the first in Ward's collegiate career.
Izzo joked with reporters about the play being drawn up for Ward.
"Everybody thinks I'm mad at Nick, so I told him 'What the hell Nick, go ahead and shoot a three,"' Izzo said. "That was for you guys, that three we set up for him."
Long layoff: The Spartans will not play again until they face off against Oakland on Dec. 16 at Little Caesars Arena, as the team prepares for finals week.
For a team that has traveled a lot of miles already this season and haven't had much practice time, the layoff should give the squad some much-needed time to rejuvenate themselves.
"We've been playing a lot of games, a lot of quick turnarounds and stuff like that," guard Cassius Winston said. "So now it's a little opportunity to just focus on ourselves as a team, not who we're playing or what we're about do."
But for Izzo, the challenge of preparing for a solid 6-4 Oakland team during a stressful week filled with exams will not be easy.
"It's not easy, I'll tell you that," Izzo said. "The grind that they've been through and then all of a sudden you've got tests everyday and you're trying to squeeze a practice in."
Back to No. 1?: Izzo's squad has a good chance to claim the No. 1 spot in this weeks AP poll after the two teams ranked ahead of them (No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Kansas) lost to unranked opponents last week.
MSU began the season as the No. 2 ranked team but dropped down a spot after losing to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic back on Nov. 14.
The Spartans will likely contend with Villanova for the top spot in the poll rankings, as the Wildcats remained undefeated (8-0) after beating No. 12 Gonzaga last Tuesday.