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Basketball Round Up: Thoughts on Nick Ward and MSU’s dominant defense

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In the doghouse or not, MSU needs Nick Ward to be a title contender, and with their elite defense that’s exactly what they look like.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State basketball has been busy lately, playing six games in 13 days, including two top-10 teams and two conference games. They also covered quite a bit of ground in those two weeks, starting out west in Portland, then coming back to East Lansing, before finishing out east at Rutgers. With all that, it is no surprise the Spartans turned in a bit of an unbalanced effort against the Scarlet Knights.

Yes, their worst performance since Duke still saw them winning on the road against a conference opponent by double digits. Not too bad.

Nick Ward

But there was more to come out of that game than just another win. Nick Ward was benched for nearly the entire second half, and his body language was not good during that benching. Both Ward and Tom Izzo spoke after the game about it and deemed things to be fine, but neither were all that convincing in doing so.

There are a coupe surefire ways to find yourself in Izzo’s dog house. They are defense, effort, and carelessness. In this case, my guess is that defense is the cause for the rift between the Hall of Fame coach and his sophomore center.

According to kenpom.com, Nick Ward has played in 43.1% of the minutes for Michigan State this year. That number obviously took a big hit with Ward playing just 11 minutes against Rutgers. That total tied a season low, as Ward also only logged 11 minutes in the DePaul game.

The benching in the Rutgers game came right after Ward had arguably his best game of the year, a 22 point, 7 rebound, 3 block performance in just 16 minutes against Nebraska.

The defensive stuff is really hard to quantify, but some of the numbers for Ward look pretty good. According to KenPom he is about a 20% defensive rebounder, putting him in the top 14% of players nationally. He is the 10th best offensive rebounder in the country, at 17.6 percent. Ward has a block percentage of 7.7%, putting him in the top 5% nationally in that category. And while he does average commit 5.2 fouls for every 40 minutes, he draws 8.7, the seventh best rate in the country.

According to the site Value Add Basketball, Ward currently has the third highest effect on the team’s defensive efficiency, behind Jackson and Bridges. He is also their second most important player offensively, behind Cassius Winston.

I want to make this clear that I am in no way saying Izzo is wrong here. Tom Izzo has forgotten more about basketball, and teaching players how to improve at the game, than I will ever know. What’s more is that Ward certainly isn’t the first player to clash with Izzo like this, and he won’t be the last. Ultimately, Izzo has the best interest of the team and the player at heart, and things usually work out for both parties.

Even a casual observer will tell you that Nick Ward is one of the most important players to MSU this year. Without him against Rutgers the team struggled offensively for long stretches and was often reduced to a jump shooting team. The Spartans need him on the floor if they are going to be a national championship caliber team.

Part of me thinks this is about Izzo trying to keep Ward fresh for the long haul, knowing the schedule is condensed this year (thanks Delany), and not wanting him to burn out or get hurt. Considering the stretch of schedule MSU just went through, the desire to limit Ward’s minutes may have been more about that than anything else. Still, there has been chatter about Izzo wanting more from Ward, and the benching at Rutgers was certainly about something along those lines rather than a minutes restriction.

Ultimately I think both coach and player will get on the same page. I also think the leadership among the players will help in this area as well. Sometimes you need to hear it from your teammates for it to fully sink in. I don’t foresee this being a long term thing, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Ward goes out and just beats down Southern Utah this weekend for 20 and 10.

Two Point Defense

First off all let’s point out that this team has been incredible defensively. They are currently number two in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They are number one in two point defense, allowing teams to shoot only 32% from inside the arc. That number is completely insane, and more than five points better than anyone has done in the last 16 years, probably longer. Teams are actually shooting better outside the arc against them at 35.4 percent.

For another insane stat, look at this one our old pal KJ dug up:

Michigan State is down to fifth in the country in block percentage at a mere 19.6 percent. That number would still be the highest of the KenPom era for MSU by almost five percent. The Spartans tied a school record for blocked shots in a game on Tuesday with thirteen. Jaren Jackson also tied a school record with eight of those blocks himself.

All the blocks and the low two-point shooting percentage has Michigan State as the top team in opponent’s eFG%. MSU has never led in the country in defensive eFG% in the KenPom era (since 2002), with their best year coming in 2016 when they finished third. This year’s team is besting the 2016 team by almost four percent.

What this all means is that this year’s team can play some serious defense. At least they have so far. And when you consider that they have played three of the top ten teams in offensive efficiency already (Duke, Notre Dame, UNC), it looks even more impressive.

Upcoming Schedule

With the brutal two week stretch the Spartans just endured in the rearview mirror, things should get easier for them in the next few weeks. The schedule lightens up considerably between now and the new year, when the Spartans resume conference play.

Between now and the end of the year, MSU plays six games in 23 days. All of those games are at home, except for one at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Only one opponent, Oakland, ranks in the top 150 in the KenPom rankings. And, according to those same rankings, MSU has a 99% or better chance to win in five of the six games, and a 94% chance in the other.

Now the Spartans shouldn’t take these games for granted, especially the Oakland game, but really this should be a nice chance for them to take a bit of a breather before the full conference schedule gets going in January.