As students felt relief, remorse and regret filling in scantron bubbles and submitting final essays, MSU men’s basketball (11-6 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) turned over the midterm leaf in their regular season.
An average 4-4 on the season on Nov. 29, the Spartans had proved victorious against lesser competition, however failed to defeat any of the four ranked opponents they played. While in Durham, N.C. to face off with then-No. 5 Duke University, the Spartans suffered a 78-69 loss, which dwarfed in comparison of another loss — a foot injury to the freshman forward star Miles Bridges.
At that time, Bridges led the team with 16.6 points per game and rebounds with 8.8 per game. His production on the court included a 21 point game in their season opener against then-No. 10 Arizona and three additional games with 20-plus scoring.
His ability to corral rebounds appeared cornerstone to the damaged front court, with off season injuries to graduate transfer forward Ben Carter and senior forward Gavin Schilling. Against then-No. 2 Kentucky, Bridges reigned in 12 rebounds, his season high of 15 rebounds, came three games later against St. John’s in the Bahamas.
While Bridges was sidelined, MSU men’s basketball had to continue to adapt to the ever changing terrain.
Ward holds down the fort
After an 80-76 win against Oral Roberts University, the Spartans first game without Bridges, freshman guard Cassius Winston said there was an empty feeling without him on the court.
"Nick Ward is a great post player, he can basically get a shot whenever he wants down there. There is not a lot of people who can guard him down there."Freshman guard Cassius Winston
“He’s a big part of what we are doing, there are a lot of plays that run through him early to get us going inside,” Winston said. “He’s got a lot of energy and a leader of this team and being without him was kind of different out there. At the end of the day we have to fight through adversity. He’s going to be back and better than ever so right now we just have to hold it down.“
Without Bridges, the heavily damaged front court for the Spartans gave way to a rising gem, freshman forward Nick Ward.
Out of the four highly acclaimed freshman this season, head coach Tom Izzo said Ward had the most progress to be made. Without the Carter and Schilling injuries, Izzo said Ward may have not seen much of the court this season.
Against ORU, Ward dazzled on offense, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
“Nick Ward is a great post player, he can basically get a shot whenever he wants down there," Winston said after ORU. “There is not a lot of people who can guard him down there.”
In game two of the Spartans' five game home stand, Ward contributed 13 points and 8 rebounds in a 20 point blowout against the Youngstown State Penguins, 77-57.
Limited due to foul trouble in a 71-63 win against Tennessee Tech, Ward finished shooting a perfect 4-4 from the field. His ability to consistently knock down shots has given him a field goal percentage of 60.7 percent, second best in the Big Ten.
Hiccup against Northeastern
In three separate sports, men’s ice hockey, women’s basketball and men’s basketball, MSU squared off against Northeastern University.
The MSU men’s ice hockey suffered an early 6-2 loss and the MSU women’s basketball team rolled 78-44 behind a 19 point, 10 rebound performance from senior guard Tori Jankoska.
Northeastern’s Alex Murphy, T.J. Williams and Devon Begley carved through the Spartans, combining for a total of 51 points. Together, the trio shot 17-19 from the free-throw line for 89.5 percent.
“I can take nothing out of this game personally,” Izzo said following NU. “We didn’t play well enough to win. Things I’ve been preaching all year. Winning and losing. Some of the games that we’ve lost, it’s come down to the small things. I have not been satisfied with the play of a couple guys. I have not been satisfied with the upperclassmen. I have not been satisfied with the toughness that they play with. What I take out of it, we need to get much tougher. We need to play much harder.”
The Spartans would lose 81-73 and MSU would lose the three game series 1-2.
In the remaining game of MSU men’s basketball five-game home stand, the Spartans squared off with Oakland University.
Ward, after showing progress throughout the season, would get the honor of starting the game for the first time in his career.
Ward finished over defenders, around defenders and added more from the free-throw line. Out of his 25 minutes played, Ward tallied a career high 25 points, adding in 9 rebounds as well.
A sluggish start at the Barn against Minnesota, the Spartans took a 13 point deficit into halftime. However, the Spartans collected themselves to eat away piece by piece at the Golden Gopher lead.
"You just have a different feel when it’s conference play … it’s almost like a new season."Junior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.
From 13 points to six points, MSU was starting to get in a rhythm, however they couldn’t get over the hunch to give themselves a lead.
It took senior leadership from guard Alvin Ellis III, to pull the Spartans to a tie down the stretch. Ellis used his strength to finish layups in traffic and when the Spartans began to slow down on offense, Ellis would convert a 3-point field goal to bring back the momentum and energy.
In the waning seconds, Ellis’ free-throws tied the game for MSU, forcing overtime. In OT, junior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. stepped up and knocked down a three. The teams traded free throws but Minnesota held a one point lead. Again, Ellis was at the line hoping to put the Spartans ahead of the Golden Gophers. Confidently, Ellis made both free throws, giving MSU a 75-74 lead, the eventual winning score.
The intensity of conference play is much higher than a regular non-conference game Nairn said.
“You just have a different feel when it’s conference play … it’s almost like a new season,” Nairn said.
Game two of Big Ten play, the Spartans held host to Northwestern University. The Wildcats came into East Lansing looking for a statement win to improve their chances of making the March Madness tournament at the end of the season — a tournament MSU has made 18 straight times, but Northwestern never has.
The Spartans jumped on Northwestern early with a layup by Ward, assisted by sophomore guard Matt McQuaid.
From there on out, Ellis and freshman guard Cassius Winston controlled the pace of play, never allowing the Wildcats to gain a lead. The Spartans would improve to 2-0 in the Big Ten with a 61-52 victory.
After missing seven straight games, Bridges would suit up and come off the bench at home against Rutgers. His injury time would span 36 days, but atlast, MSU had their star back.
Out of the first media timeout, Bridges walked onto the court with a loud ovation. The first play, a backdoor screen for Bridges, saw him fly high for a McQuaid lob and down hard with a two-handed dunk.
Another highlight for his resume happened in the second half, when Bridges forced a turnover and sent a pass ahead to Winston. As Bridges trailed behind a Scarlet Knight defender, Winston lobbed a pass high in front of the rim, which Bridges snagged with his right hand, throwing down a hard slam.
Bridges would end the game with six points and six rebounds in a win against Rutgers, 93-65, their third straight Big Ten win and seven wins in the last eight games.
The look ahead
Though the Spartans were 3-0 in the Big Ten, Nairn said the team hasn’t done anything yet.
MSU would head to the Palestra in Philadelphia to face off against Penn State. The Nittany Lions used their athletic ability to find space behind Spartan defenders, leading to easy dunk after easy dunk.
Anytime the Spartans would try something new, PSU was ontop of it and would continue to hammer the Spartans. The Nittany Lions would get their second conference win and the Spartans would receive their first Big Ten loss. After the 72-63 loss, Izzo said the performance was humiliating.
Bridges started the game, however failed to show any increase of health. He struggled to get involved on offense and defensively he was not a major factor. Bridges would finish the game with four points, six rebounds and four fouls.
Though deflating, assistant head coach Dwayne Stephens said in the Big Ten not only does the intensity pick up, but each opponent knows you better.
The Spartans will have a rematch against Minnesota on Jan. 11 in East Lansing. The game is set to tip-off at 7 p.m. and be televised on Big Ten Network.
“We’re just worried about getting better each day and if continue to get better each day I feel good about where we’re gonna be,” Stephens said.
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