CHICAGO — The media seating for the Big Ten tournament is on the floor at the United Center, and for Michigan State media, it is right behind the MSU bench, in front of the family section. Media members can clearly hear the reactions of those closest to the players on the floor.
As they are there for every game their son plays for MSU, Jeff and Stephanie Ward were in the first row during MSU's 77-70 victory over Ohio State Friday afternoon, with Stephanie rocking a custom green “Ward 44” jersey. It wasn’t until their son Nick, a junior forward, was called for a flagrant 1 foul with 5:32 remaining in the first half, that his presence, and that of the whole family, was felt back in green and white.
Ward picked up the foul while trying to clear space in the middle of a triple team. He disagreed. His coach Tom Izzo disagreed.
His parents vehemently disagreed. Stephanie referred to the foul call as “soft” and implored the officials to “call it on Kaleb (Wesson, Ohio State’s sophomore forward, who eventually fouled out).” Jeff threw his hands up and said "that's crap."
Nick — his game, his personality, and his parents, were all back in full force for the first time since he suffered a hairline fracture in his left hand Feb. 17 against Ohio State.
He finished with eight points, two rebounds, and four fouls in fourteen minutes Friday afternoon. More important for MSU than any statistics, however, was simply his presence alone.
“I think we really need Nick,” Izzo said. “I think Nick did a phenomenal job considering he hasn't touched much. He hasn't practiced two times since -- in three and a half weeks. And I think that's a big deal. And I thought he played pretty much within himself.”
Nick’s play inspired promise and confidence in his teammates.
“It almost looked like Nick didn’t miss anything,” freshman forward Thomas Kithier said. “He really worked on his conditioning throughout the week, leading up to this point. When Nick gets in there, it’s almost like he didn’t even get injured. We just throw him the ball in the post, and we think he’s gonna score every time.”
Nick came off the bench for only the second time this season, as sophomore forward Xavier Tillman kept the starting spot he has had since Nick went out. He checked in four minutes into the game, and was immediately active defensively, helping create a turnover, and then knocked down a long two-point jumper.
“He looked good. ... Still in foul trouble, but that’s Nick,” senior forward Kenny Goins said, laughing. “He’ll be alright. I think going forward, he’s gonna be a huge part for us, especially as he gets his conditioning back and game experience.”
With Nick back, he, Tillman and Goins figure to be the three big men that get the lion’s share of the minutes, with Kithier being the main loser from a minutes perspective. With Tillman and Ward in foul trouble Friday, Kithier played eight minutes, scoring two.
“I look at myself as a player off the bench that can come in and do my job, and play as hard as I can,” Kithier said. “So, I obviously won’t play as much, but I don’t really feel a difference, I’ll always be ready to go.”
After the game, Ward was asked how it felt to be back on the court, after a month spent watching from the bench.
“It felt great,” he said. “I’m just trying to get back in the swing of things and really integrate into the offense and stuff like that.”