By: Will Burchfield
For all of Nick Ward’s offensive skill, one might expect the freshman center to receive more playing time.
He is second on Michigan State in scoring (13.2 points per game) but seventh in minutes played (19.2). Tom Izzo explained the disparity on Monday morning, on the heels of another strong performance by Ward – 13 points in 16 minutes – in the Spartans’ Sunday afternoon win over Michigan.
“We gotta continue with Nick. He’s been doing a good job, but more games than not he’s in foul trouble, (which) is the reason he hasn’t played as much. And yet 19, 20 minutes is a lot of minutes, especially for big guys,” Izzo told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.
In each of Ward’s three highest-scoring games of the season – all Michigan State wins – he played at least 25 minutes and had no more than two fouls. But against Purdue last Tuesday and Michigan on Sunday, he accumulated four fouls and sat for long stretches of time as a result.
Izzo also suggested Ward needs to improve his defensive game.
“There’s two ends of a court, and against Michigan it’s very difficult to guard…You play a game like this and he can get you two, but on the other end they’re stretching you with fives that can shoot it so they can get the three. Then at the end of the game when you’d like to have him in there, they fouled him with about six minutes left when we were up nine or 10, just kind of a hack-a-Shaq foul, and we gotta deal with that because of the free throws,” Izzo said.
Ward is shooting just 55 percent from the line, making him a target (and a liability) in late-game situations. His penchant for getting into foul trouble has hurt the Spartans, who are 3-4 when Ward has at least four fouls.
“When you get a couple fouls on a guy like Nick and you don’t have any subs at that position at that size, it creates some other problems too that maybe are harder to see,” Izzo said.
The coach made it clear he prefers to have the 6’8, 250-pound freshman on the floor than on the bench.
“I love Nick Ward, he’s been great, he’s gotten better, he’s done a lot of good things,” said Izzo. “I know this: I don’t go there and say, ‘Let’s see, I’ll not play Nick so I can lose the game.'”
With Spartans (13-9) on the NCAA Tournament bubble with nine games remaining, they’ll need Ward more than ever. How much he’ll play is mostly up to him.