In his first two seasons at Michigan State, Nick Ward struggled to clock consistent minutes, as his fitness and free throw woes often seated him next to his head coach Tom Izzo during crunch time.
The junior forward's past concerns resurfaced against Kansas in the Champions Classic, as he struggled to defend Udoka Azubuike, who scored 17 in just 20 minutes on the floor. On Sunday, however, Ward's career-high 25 points suggested he might start to become the consistent inside presence for the Spartans.
But an injury suffered early in MSU's win over Louisiana-Monroe halted Ward's momentum.
Less than eight minutes into the matchup with Louisiana-Monroe, the Gahanna, Ohio product went down with an always-concerning non-contact injury, and would not return to the game.
Izzo suggested postgame that Ward’s injury isn’t “anything serious”, unofficially diagnosing it as a low right ankle sprain, but his absence during this game exposed flaws in an MSU offense that struggled to create separation from the Warhawks until the second half.
Ward’s exit in the first half exacerbated the issues posed by ULM’s zone defense, a scheme that has historically given MSU fits. The Spartans were knocked out of last year's NCAA tournament by Syracuse and its vaunted 2-3 zone.
“I actually thought we attacked the zone pretty good ... I just thought we settled," Izzo said after his team's win on Wednesday. "We moved the ball around and we settled for threes. ... We could’ve thrown it into Kenny (Goins) and thrown it back out, so I gotta take the blame for that and do a better job of getting it in there, not even as a scoring threat but maybe as a passing threat.”
While not a zone on caliber with those of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, ULM’s defensive effort held the Spartans to 2-19 shooting from three-point range and a 28.2 percent overall clip in the first half.
“They can’t shoot the ball that poorly and beat really good people,” ULM coach Keith Richard said. “But I don’t that they’ll shoot that poorly very often. These are some — at least three of them — really, really good shooters.”
Had ULM not shot almost equally as poorly in the first half at 32.3 percent, or rather if MSU hadn’t held them to such a low percentage, the outcome could have been different.
“We were just focused on this (defense),” junior guard Cassius Winston emphasized. “I think that helped a lot because that game — if we weren't playing defense — that game could have gotten out of hand. So, our defense kind of saved (us) and that was our focus. We were going to keep them in front of us, force them into a tough shot.”
If a similar trend ensues, especially against better opponents, the Spartans will have a difficult time winning games, regardless of improvements on the defensive end. Ward, when healthy, will inevitably get into foul trouble at points this season, so MSU will need to find other avenues through which to respond offensively.
“Not having Nick kind of hurts the offense, just how we play,” Winston said. “We dump it in there a lot because you gotta pay a lot (of) attention to him and so he helps a lot. So, now they focus on us. We had to get to make an adjustment. It’s not a lot that we had to play without Nick. But once we made the adjustment I think we kind of figured it out.“
Xavier Tillman’s Expanded Role
Part of MSU’s adjustments came through the presence of Xavier Tillman. The sophomore forward out of Grand Rapids was expected to embrace a larger role this season given the loss of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the NBA, and Wednesday's circumstances were a microcosm of his role to come.
“Even if Nick’s not in foul trouble and I’m in the game without Nick, I need to be the inside presence for us and score the ball inside,” Tillman said. “Whether it’s a layup, hook shot or drawing a double team for a kick out, I need to be an inside presence when I’m in the game. So, that just kinda showed me what I still need to work on but showed myself I can do it.”
Ward’s injury in part helped this relatively young Spartan team grow through a test of adversity before Big Ten play, allowing Winston to step up into a leadership role and Tillman to realize his importance to the lineup.
“At halftime, he (Izzo) challenged me to be way more aggressive,” Tillman said. “He told me, ‘We’re going to see what you’ve got right here. You’re either gonna fold or you’re gonna bring it.’ So I just had that mindset to be aggressive.”