Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo’s postgame press conference after the Rutgers game on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Piscataway, New Jersey. Chris Solari/DFP
EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo saw Nick Ward’s smile return Thursday.
He walked up to his seated big man, delivering a fatherly peck on his forward’s forehead and a pat on the head.
“I still love Nick,” Izzo said, grinning just as wide as he walked away.
With that, all is well with the Michigan State basketball world again.
With finals coming up, Izzo admitted he wanted to send a message to his two sophomores Ward and Cassius Winston. And both said they moved on almost immediately from their second-half benching during the Spartans’ 62-52 win at Rutgers on Tuesday.
Asked how he was Wednesday morning, after venting some of his frustrations in the locker room a few hours earlier, Ward said he was “back to my normal state of mind.”
“Everybody has a bad day,” said Ward, who finished with three points in a career-low 11 minutes. “That day was one of those days. And you move on from it.”
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No. 3 MSU returns to nonconference action Saturday at home against Southern Utah (6 p.m./Big Ten Network).
Ward sat the first 12 minutes after halftime and played just 1:11 after that, getting in a heated discussion with Izzo on the sideline and looking disengaged from his teammates in the final 6-plus minutes.
Izzo said some of Ward’s demeanor was based on Rutgers throwing a number of double-teams at him in the post, along with MSU’s struggles to get through them on offense. And some, as he said Tuesday, was based on the struggles both Ward and Winston had with ball-screen defense.
“I think Nick and Cassius have made the most improvements in the things they have to do — their bodies, their conditioning, their strength,” Izzo said. “Nick is so much better on ball screens normally now. Nick’s gotta work on the mental part of Nick. He’s gotta work on not getting so angry over things. You can laugh, but I had to work on that, too …. I mean, early on when we played Michigan, I swear I lost those games for us because I didn’t handle it very well.
“He’s learning how to deal with it. … We saw some times when we didn’t get him the ball, so that probably angers any big guy a little bit. But I swear to you, by the time we got home, that airplane ride home, it was like shut the switch off and he was 100 miles an hour.”
Ward said he didn’t expect the double-team from Rutgers but is trying to take a different approach to them moving forward.
“The doubles frustrated me, but you know, it’s a compliment,” he said. “It’s a compliment that you have to double-team me and face-guard me. But, hey, you gotta move on from it. … Yeah, I could have done a lot of things differently. I could’ve went a little harder. You know, there’s things on my part.”
Cassius Winston was benched for much of the second half against Rutgers, but made two key shots in the Spartans’ victory. (Photo: Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports)
Winston did not check back into the game until more than seven minutes into the second half and played just 16 minutes total. However, he hit two critical 3-pointers in the final four minutes — his only points of the game — to help the Spartans (8-1, 2-0 Big Ten) survive their first road game of the season.
For his part, point guard Winston said his body language “didn’t look like I was ready to play” after rewatching the footage of the game. He admitted that he now realizes how much Izzo wants the Spartans to feed off Winston’s energy and effort as the starting point guard, and he showed some of that on the sideline even when he was out of the game.
“That was crazy, because that hadn’t happened in a long time,” Winston said of watching from the bench. “It was different, but nothing bad against it. I got the point he was trying to prove and things like that. Just another learning adjustment and learning curve. You got something to prove. You almost want to force him in a position where he can’t sit you on the bench that long. That’s all that was.”
Izzo said much of his maneuvering was based on those strides both Ward and Winston have made; he does not want them to regress. Airing their grievances and getting past issues, the Hall of Fame coach said, “are the things that are gonna make us better in the long run.”
“That’s all I care about, getting better every day,” Izzo said. “Some of it will be basketball, some of it will be mentally and some of it will be with how we deal with different things that are being thrown at us. We gotta get good at that, because we’re gonna get a lot of things thrown at us.”
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