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Column: In an off night, Nick Ward shows his character

January 23, 2019
Junior forward Nick Ward (44) makes a basket during the game against Northwestern University at Breslin Center on Jan. 2, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 81-55.
Junior forward Nick Ward (44) makes a basket during the game against Northwestern University at Breslin Center on Jan. 2, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 81-55. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

The second foul call was iffy at best. Maryland doubled him every time he touched the ball, and he was at a height disadvantage against 6 foot, 10 inch center Bruno Fernando anyway. The foul trouble didn’t allow him to get into a rhythm. 

However you slice it, junior forward Nick Ward didn’t just have an off night in Monday’s 69-55 victory over No. 13 Maryland. He threw up a giant goose egg on the scoreboard in 14 foul-laden minutes. But frankly, it shouldn’t matter. 

Flush that game tape.

For Ward to play as poorly as he did, and he did play poorly, and Michigan State to still win as comfortably as it did against a Top-15 team on a seven-game win streak is impressive. Coach Tom Izzo said Ward may as well have been junior guard Joshua Langford, who hasn’t dressed in three weeks due to his nursing a sore left foot. 

Ward sure did handle this disappointment differently than in years past. There was last season’s debacle against Rutgers, when he was benched in part for bad body language. Izzo is an old-school guy, not afraid to bench his best players to send a message. But there was no message to send to Ward tonight, other than keep your head up.

“Nick was frustrated, but he handled it well. (That’s) the maturity of him,” Izzo said postgame. “I was frustrated. I was more frustrated than he was. I thought he did a hell of a job, but he didn’t even get in the game.”

Ward’s relationship with Izzo has been the source of lots of discussion, as has Izzo’s relationship with his other star, junior point guard Cassius Winston. Izzo and Winston had a big embrace during a breakout moment in the second half tonight, showing the maturation of their relationship, from disappointed father (Izzo saying last week against Penn State that it was one of the worst games Winston had played) to proud teacher (hug, general glowing comments tonight).

This will get less attention, because it’s not glitzy. There is no “Miracle” speech with Ward. Izzo is not Kurt Russell or Herb Brooks, making Ward do 1,000 suicide runs to apologize for his bad game Monday night.

“He just keeps his composure a lot better than he would have. I think the last couple years,  if he didn’t get a shot, he would’ve taken bad shots, forced some things, stuff like that,” Winston said of Ward postgame. “Now, he just lets the game come to him. He’s gonna have his nights where he scores 25, 26, stuff like that. Tonight, you won’t see this a lot, because of how much better he got. He’s in foul trouble and things like that. It just shows that he’s keeping his composure, playing really good basketball.” 

Winston knows Ward better than anybody outside the locker room — they’ve played together for three seasons now — and there’s a comfort between them, whether it’s Winston knowing where to dump the ball for Ward inside on the court or how they mess with each other in the locker room. 

As insightful as he is, Winston understands the maturation of Ward. While he went scoreless, and had a bad night, Ward didn’t force shots. He only shot three times, because it wasn’t there for him to score. He grabbed five rebounds. He worked hard defensively, really limiting a talented Fernando. He kept his composure, and didn’t allow his bad night to snowball and affect the team’s good one. 

Since this was a rare night when he wasn’t one of the offensive stars, the coaches allowed him to go home before the media was allowed into the locker room. But Tuesday after practice, he answered honestly when asked how he would have handled the situation as a freshman.

"I’d have been mad," Ward said. "You’d see it in my body language and stuff like that. I wouldn’t have been cheering, but it’s a different mentality (now)." 

He’s old and wise.

“That’s a real mature thing for him to do, especially because it’s something that’s not in his control,” sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said, referring specifically to the foul calls. “I feel like he realized that and said, ‘it is what it is,’ kind of, like, I’m gonna move on, and I’m not gonna dwell on it.”

Don’t be surprised if Ward dominates against Iowa on Thursday night. But if he doesn’t, watch how he handles that, too. There’s an old quote about the measure of the man being how he handles difficult times or something to that effect.

“(Ward) handled it like a pro,” Tillman said. “Last year, he was kind of down about it, and kind of sulked about it, but this year he moved on quickly.” 

If Ward does decide to turn professional after this season, scouts who truly do their homework will see nights like tonight as a positive. He is not the embattled young star who sulked on the Rutgers bench. 

He’s a pro.

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