Notebook: Ward plays for his potential, 1979 team returns
Nick Ward plays to his potential
It has been a tough two weeks for junior forward Nick Ward. He has been publicly called out on multiple occasions by his head coach, and did not start Tuesday night against Illinois as a form of punishment. Perhaps no player on this team has felt the pressure of the three-game losing streak more than Ward.
From the opening tip of MSU’s 79-55 victory over Minnesota Saturday afternoon, Ward was a different player. He was engaged defensively, he wanted the ball, he went after rebounds. With Ward playing this way, all of a sudden, there was a different intensity to the whole team.
“Nick had some rebounds in the first half like he did early on. Two-handed rebounds, above everybody,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Ward only grabbed one rebound in 20 minutes Tuesday night. He had eight at halftime of Saturday’s game, which he finished with 22 points and nine rebounds. Ward probably could have had even more rebounds than he did, if not for some shots going in that he had great position for.
“I think it was this last couple practices, that coach has really been focused on Nick, to just be more of a rebounder,” sophomore big man Xavier Tillman said postgame. “Don’t worry about your points, just get deep post position and get high rebounds off the rim. That’s something that we’ve been working on in these last practices, and that's something that he showed.”
Minnesota elected not to double-team Ward for most of the first half, when he was instrumental in ripping the game away. Golden Gopher coach Richard Pitino was asked postgame about that decision.
“They dive their big very, very quickly. We were trying to do it a couple times, slap down. He made some tough shots, he’s got that interesting release. So, he’s a good player,” Pitino said.
The eyes are always the thing to watch with Ward. He has become legendary in media and fan circles for his facial expressions and body language. When he’s not feeling up to it, or isn’t engaged, the big eyes go away. Saturday, his eyes were as wide as saucers.
The key now is to stay engaged Tuesday night against Wisconsin. Ward will likely draw one of his toughest assignments of the season, Ethan Happ.
“Your best players can’t just play good, and sometimes they can’t just play great,” Izzo said of Ward and junior point guard Cassius Winston. “They gotta play at a level they’ve never been at.”
79 for ‘79
MSU officially welcomed back and recognized the 40th anniversary of the 1979 NCAA championship team led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson Saturday. Events were held Friday night, the team spoke at halftime, and also spoke to the current Spartan squad after the game.
Magic spoke to the media before the game, and mentioned that his team started Big Ten play 4-4, saying that the current team could draw on that for inspiration during their recent struggles.
“I think this only makes Michigan State get better,” Johnson said. “We got one of the best coaches in college basketball, so I’m not really worried about the Spartans.”
All of the members of the 1979 team were there, except for coach Jud Heathcote, who died in 2017. Izzo joked postgame that his mentor Heathcote and former Spartan coach Gus Ganakas may have had a hand in the final score.
“An impressive stat is, Jud’s sitting up there having a beer with Gus. He’s so selfish, he wouldn’t let us score 81, so he let us score 79 so we remember the ‘79 team. So we scored 79 points today,” he said.
Jay Vincent, a sophomore forward on the 1979 team, had words for the current team after the game, which Izzo related to the media in his press conference. He spoke about going through struggles and being called out by the head coach.
“He said, ‘I just want you young guys to know that I had to go through that, too. Every time Earvin made a mistake, Jud yelled at me, and every time Greg (Kelser) made a mistake, Jud yelled at me. So, at least Tom is equal opportunity, when you guys make a mistake, he yells at you.’ And I thought that was pretty true,” Izzo said, laughing.
The family atmosphere was preached by members of both teams. Freshman big man Thomas Kithier said it was pretty special that a group of guys in their early sixties would all come back for a game in February.
The 1979 team’s victory over Larry Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA Championship Game still remains the highest-rated college basketball game of all-time by television ratings.